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Properly handling your children's feeling of failure

Dr. Alan Goldberg

When I speak to parents groups around the country one of my more important messages is: “If you really want to give your children the gift of success in everything that they do in their lives, then teach them how to fail!” The absolute worst thing that a parent can ever teach a child about failing is that it is a bad thing and cause for shame/embarrassment. Unfortunately, this is the lesson that is most often taught in our culture, a lesson that always leaves a child feeling fearful about his/her performance. Fear of failure is probably one of the biggest causes of repetitive performance problems both in and out of sports. This worry steals your child’s enjoyment of the sport, tightens his/her muscles, distracts him/her from the proper concentration and insures that his/her performance will consistently be way below potential.

As a parent you need to go out of your way to help your children separate themselves from the outcome of their performances. You need to help them let go of the twisted notion that making mistakes and failing are two of the worst things that they could possibly ever do. This means that both verbally and non-verbally you have to consistently give them the message that they are NOT their performances. Simply put, when they perform badly, they are NOT bad or when they struggle performance-wise or lose, they are not losers. This means that you have to help them better handle the natural feelings that are associated with failing. How successful you are in doing this depends upon your ability to take an honest look at yourself in the mirror.

Last week I met with a 16 year old tennis player, the youngest of three boys. Mike was referred to me by his father for problems with choking under pressure. It seemed that whenever the match got close, Mike would become overwhelmed by nervousness and stop playing his normally relaxed and aggressive game. Instead, he would get very tentative and defensively push the ball back. As a consequence, he would often steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory and lose to much weaker players. More important, Mike told me that he hadn’t had much fun playing tennis over the past year and half because he was constantly too stressed whenever he competed.

It’s interesting to note here that Mike’s next older brother, Billy, 17, who was a very talented tennis player in his own right, had recently quit the game a year earlier because it was no longer fun for him either. A few years before that, the boys’ oldest brother, Josh had been scouted by a number of high level college baseball teams during his junior year in high school but then he had suddenly and inexplicably quit the game. He refused to talk about it with his parents other than saying “I hate baseball and don’t want to play anymore!”

How do we explain this interesting family pattern? Predictably! It turns out that the boys’ father put a tremendous amount of pressure on each of his sons to excel in their sport. Whenever they performed badly, the father had a tendency to get really angry at them. At times he would leave a game or match in disgust if they were playing badly or losing. After a loss, he wouldn’t speak to the “offending” son for several days. Josh had quit baseball because it stopped being fun for him and because he was sick and tired of fighting with his dad after games. Apparently the same thing had happened with Billy and his tennis. While Mike loved the game and didn’t want to quit, his performance problems and lack of enjoyment were pushing him in that direction. Like his brothers’ problems, Mike’s struggles were a direct result of the pressure that his dad put on him to excel and win.

While I know for a fact that Mike’s dad meant well and truly wanted his boys to be happy and successful, he was totally unaware of how destructive his responses were to his sons’ failures and mistakes. He had inadvertently, by his behaviors taught all of his boys that making mistakes and failing was not only unacceptable, but something that they should avoid at all costs. In the family, the consequences for making mistakes and failing were clear and predictable: Dad would be disappointed and angry and there would be hell to pay for the “offending” son!

As a result of this conditioning, Mike was overly concerned with the outcome of his matches. He was so worried that his dad was going to be upset with how he played after the match that he put an undue amount of pressure on himself before and during the match to be perfect with every shot he hit. Trying to be perfect as an athlete is ABSOLUTE POISON! It creates a sense of internal urgency that tightens muscles, distracts concentration and sabotages performance. This sense of urgency intensifies with every mistake the athlete makes. I know of no better way to set an athlete up to choke than to get him/her worried about making mistakes and failing.

Teaching your children to over-focus on the outcome in this manner will insure that they follow the very same footsteps as Josh, Billy and Mike. They will be fearful approaching competitions, be unable to stay relaxed and properly focused throughout them and will eventually come to hate the sport before they prematurely quit. Do you want your children to have this kind of relationship with their sport? Do you want them to be overly focused on you and worried about your disapproval when they compete?

If you would sincerely like to help your children develop a healthier, more rewarding relationship with their game, then it’s up to you to teach them to have a more relaxed relationship with failing and making mistakes. This means that you have to help them relax more when they go into competition. You have to help them understand that the main purpose of them playing their game is to grow as a person and have fun. Sports are a vehicle through which an athlete can learn valuable life lessons and, in the process, learn to feel good about him/herself. This can never happen if you make the main purpose to win. You may think that you are really helping your son and daughter by emphasizing the outcome in this way. Unfortunately the contrary is true! You are really hurting them.

How do you help your children have a more relaxed attitude towards failing and making mistakes? You do so by how you respond to and manage their feelings of failure. When your children fail or make mistakes, YOU have to learn to respond more appropriately and constructively.

Let me state the obvious here: NO CHILD MAKES MISTAKES AND LOSES BECAUSE HE/SHE WANTS TO! NO CHILD WANT HIS/HER PARENTS TO BE DISAPPOINTED IN HIM/HER. What are the implications of this? When your child fails, he already feels miserable. Even before you open your mouth to criticize or offer “helpful” hints, your son or daughter is already hurting big time! He/she may be embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated, discouraged, sad, angry with him/herself, struggling with feelings of worthlessness, etc. Before you decide to get angry at them and tell them how much of an embarrassment they are to you, STOP & THINK! How is what you’re about to say going to help them? How will it make them feel better about themselves? How will it motivate them to improve? More important, HOW WILL IT HELP THEM MANAGE THE PAIN THAT THEY ARE ALREADY EXPERIENCING?

If you overtly or covertly show your displeasure with their failing, if you criticize or put them down for not living up to your expectations, angrily walk out on them when they’re losing, then you should know that at that very moment, YOU ARE DOING YOUR CHILD A SERIOUS DISSERVICE. To respond to their pain by making them feel even more pain is to emotionally traumatize them. When you do this you fail your child in far more serious ways than striking out to end the game, getting beaten in the last 25 or losing a match.

To teach your child how to have a healthy attitude towards failing you must respond constructively to their feelings of failure: Specifically this means that when they fail you must:

1)Respond with empathy, NOT anger – Step inside their shoes for an instant and feel the pain that they’re feeling. Then respond to their pain, NOT your own selfish needs and wants. For example, you see how upset your daughter is after a loss and, at an appropriate time you say, “That must really hurt hon. I can see how frustrated and disappointed you are. It really feels pretty crappy to give it your all like you did and to come up short. Just keep in mind that you’ll have plenty of other games and there will be other chances.”
2)Respond with compassion, NOT shame inducing comments or behavior – A compassionate response is one that offers kindness, forgiveness and hope to a child. It allows that child to begin to heal and constructively make use of the failure. For example, “It sure sucks to lose. It’s really frustrating. But even though you’re really disappointed, I want you to try and be kind to yourself. You did some things well and you want to be able to forgive yourself if things didn’t turn out exactly how you wanted.”
3)Respond with relaxation, NOT tension – If you are tense watching your children compete and then respond to them from this tense place, you can be sure that what you say and do with them won’t be burdened by deep waves of thought. When you are emotional and tense, you will say hurtful, emotionally damaging things that you’ll ultimately regret. Try to stay calm and relaxed when interacting with your child after that bad performance.
4)Engage, DO NOT withdraw – The very last thing that your child needs from you when he/she is hurting after a failure is for you to angrily withdraw. What they need instead is for you to sensitively and lovingly engage them. This does not mean that you should offer criticism for what they’ve done wrong or force them to talk about the game. These kinds of responses do not address their feelings of failure. Unless you address their feelings of failure, you will not be correctly teaching them how to use failure to become successful. So physically and emotionally be there for them when they struggle. After all, this is the time when they need you, the parent the most!
5)Be kind, NOT mean – This may seem a little obvious, but it still needs to be said. Listen to yourself when you talk to your children after failures. Are you being kind to them in your words and tone? Reframe from hurtful comments like, “you’re a total embarrassment” or “if you’re going to continue to perform this way, then I should just stop wasting my money on you!” Remember, this is your son or daughter that you’re talking to and right after a loss he/she is probably feeling the most vulnerable.
6)Be loving, NOT withholding – Your most important move when your child fails is to remain unconditionally loving. Do NOT link your love and their lovability with their performance. Do NOT withhold your love whenever they fail. Instead, reassure them both verbally and non-verbally that you’ll love them no matter what happens in their performance! Remember, our kids need our love more when the going gets rough. Be there for them unconditionally!
7)Be disappointed WITH them, NOT disappointed IN them – This goes back to your primary job of keeping your child’s feelings of failure foremost in your mind. When they fail, empathize with their disappointment. Feel their disappointment and reflect back to them that you understand how their disappointment feels. “You know, right now I can imagine how awful it must feel to have come so close and then right at the end, come up short. I know you’re really disappointed. It’s tough to lose and it sure hurts like hell.” Under no circumstances should you show that YOU are disappointed in them. Remember, they are NOT performing in their sport for YOU. The sport belongs to them. They should be performing for themselves! If they fail, do NOT make their failure about YOU and YOUR disappointment.

To sum, if you truly want to teach your kids how to have a healthy attitude about failing and making mistakes, then you need to learn how to better manage their feelings when they fail. Paradoxically, in order to do this well, you need to learn how to first manage your own feelings when they fail so that these do not get in your way of lovingly be there for your child

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