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Helping kids handle mistakes

When kids make mistakes, we feel so frustrated and usually say something like:

‘I TOLD YOU THIS WOULD HAPPEN!’

‘WHY DON’T YOU LISTEN TO ME?’

‘NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE.  YOU ARE SO XXXX’ (FILL IN THE BLANKS)

So how should we respond?

They have to learn don’t they?

I often think about how I respond when I make a mistake.  Sometimes I get defensive and try to blame someone else – my husband usually (!). 

Sometimes I feel such shame and frustration about the mistake that I just don’t know what to do.

Other times I dig my heels in and refuse to even acknowledge that it is a mistake.

What we all really want to do is to accept we made a mistake, learn from it and move on.

This process isn’t an easy one though.

From my many years as a parent and from studying and working in the field of parenting, I know that how we handle our kids mistakes is absolutely crucial to a child’s healthy development.

If we resort to shaming them (even in subtle ways like a sigh of disappointment), they will start to cover up the mistakes or refuse to make amends.

This happens a lot with potty training.  Parents tell me so often that their child ‘Just won’t admit when she’s done a poo or has wet knickers’.

We’ve got to stop and ask why that is?

It is because she is worried – even if it appears otherwise – that she’s going to be told off or has been a disappointment so she doesn’t admit it?  

So here are some crucial facts about kids that cause these things to happen;

  • They are impulsive. The younger they are the more impulsive they are (but believe me, teenagers are pretty impulsive too!)
  • They misjudge situations and make bad choices – partly due to impulsivity and partly because they are thinking about other things.
  • They have different priorities to us.
  • They haven’t learnt the control yet that is needed to curtail impulsivity and listen to us.
  • They want to make decisions themselves and they want to feel a sense of power and control (so many of the things they have to do are dictated by us)
  • They are constantly testing things. Rocking back on a chair is interesting and feels good to do. In the moment of rocking they like the feeling and aren’t thinking about how annoying it is to us or that the chair might break.
  • Each child has a different response to potty training and it is absolutely vital that we tailor our approach no matter what stage they are at or how frustrated we are by it. See below for details of a new free workshop I’ve got coming for tips to help this.

Here are 5 great steps to dealing with a mistake that helps a child to take on responsibility and it helps avoid (not eliminate) future mistakes.

  1. Describe what happened with no emotion or blame in your tone of voice ‘You love to throw and you forgot that the rule inside is no throwing’* or ‘I’m not sure why you spilt water into your nuggets. Maybe you felt cross as you wanted pasta or maybe you just didn’t hold your cup steady’
  2. Put into words the feeling that is there ‘When you make a mistake it feels very frustrating’ or ‘It is really hard to admit our mistakes and sometimes we want to pretend they didn’t happen'
  3. Ask your child what they should have done; Say something like  ‘Instead of saying 'no' to try for the potty before we went out, what do you think you should have done?’. Or 'If we want to throw balls, where do we need to go?' It can take a while for them to be ready to answer, so it is worth coming back to it.
  4. Have them get involved with making amends at some level. If appropriate you can start off with asking for them to say sorry (again it is better to wait for this one) In the case of an accident, they can clear it up – maybe that is wiping up wee, tipping away spoilt food, picking up the flowers from the vase. Older children can contribute a bit of pocket money to repair a breakage.
  5. Make sure your child knows that you forgive them and that they forgive themselves. ‘You made a mistake. We all make mistakes. I forgive you.’ (if you don’t like the word ‘forgive’ – it might be a bit too strong, you can say ‘it’s all ok now. Are you ok?’

*In the case of throwing, know that children have an urge to throw so we need to give them loads of opportunities to throw the right things in the right place. Keep  a soft ball inside that is for throwing and have lots of throwing practice outside.  This won’t always work and they will forget and throw inside – see above for the reasons.

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