How do you respond to your children’s mistakes?

Everyone makes mistakes. It is a universal fact. However, some people find it easier than others to admit it.

When children make mistakes, as a parent, you may react in various ways:

  • You might criticise them
  • Shout at them
  • Give them a smack
  • Punish them
  • Remind them
  • Preach at them
  • Tell them what they should have done
  • Argue with them
  • Threaten them
  • Or you might call them names such as stupid, thick, dumb, idiot, etc. etc.

However, there is a problem with each of these methods. They don’t work.

Sometimes, in the short-term, your child may do things to avoid your shouting or punishment. But in the long-term, poor behaviour is often repeated when you are not around.

Your children continue to fight, pick on other kids, answer back, misbehave in school, help themselves to crisps– or whatever it is. Which is a bit unsettling to realise.

Why do we keep reacting in these ways?

So why do you keep using these methods to discipline your children?

Mainly because you can’t think of another way of dealing with it. The problem is, you frequently copy behaviour that we have learned from your own parents and teachers as you were growing up. Even if they don’t work. Because you can’t think of what else to do.

However, as a parents, you want your child to learn from mistakes. So, how can you do that?

It is the way you deal with the mistake that has the biggest impact.

As soon as you start shouting or criticising your children, the barriers go up. Your child starts to tune you out and in their minds, their own poor behaviour becomes insignificant. You become the ‘baddie.’

Think of how you would feel if your boss started telling you off for something, called you stupid or started shouting at you. How would you feel?

Apart from maybe feeling embarrassed or angry, you might think ‘He doesn’t understand’ ‘I had a good reason’. Alternatively, you might think ‘It’s true, I am stupid. I won’t ever be able to do it.’ Or ‘La la la la la…. I’m not listening!’ Or ‘Go and crawl back under your rock! You lizard’. The more militant among us will start shouting back. Or take it out someone else.

Well, it’s the same with children.

When you shout or punish your child for making a mistake it stops them from being able to listen or learn.

15 steps to help children learn from mistakes

  1. Accept mistakes are normal. Help your children understand that everyone makes mistakes and you don’t expect them to be perfect.
  2. Recognise a ‘teachable moment.’ React to a mistake with the intention, not to punish, but to help your child learn from it.
  3. Explain the problem. Calmly help your child to understand there is an problem that needs to be fixed. Help your child work out what to do to fix it (such as clearing up a mess.)
  4. After a mistake, allow time to calm down. Wait for your child to calm down before discussing the mistake. Listen to the issues, but if possible, give them space to get over the frustration and upset that the mistake may have caused. It is very difficult for your child to think straight when their emotions are running high.
  5. Help them accept responsibility. Encourage your child to admit to a mistake, and to take responsibility for it rather than blaming others.
  6. Acknowledge responsible actions. Praise your child if they do admit to a mistake. Resist the temptation to jump in with a criticism, comment, label, punishment or judgement.
  7. Stick to the point. Make sure that you stick to the one mistake, rather than bringing up any similar mistakes made in the past.
  8. Help them apologise. Encourage your child to say sorry and discuss ways of doing this in person if possible or in a letter.
    A good apology includes:
    • A description of what happened.
    • Recognition of the hurt or damage caused.
    • Accepting responsibility for the situation.
    • Admitting their role in the incident.
    • Expressing regret for what happened.
    • Asking forgiveness.
    • Reassurance that it won’t happen again.
    • Asking how they can make up for the hurt or damage.
  9. Don’t rescue from poor decisions. Overcome the temptation to rescue your child from the consequences of a mistake. Help them to realise the consequences of their actions. (Such as children not wanting to play with them, people being cross, punishments at school etc.).
  10. Help them explore solutions. Help your child to problem-solve to look at ways to make amends. Or do something nice if they have hurt or offended someone. maybe drawing them a ‘sorry’ picture, helping out, decorating a cake for them or giving them a foot massage!)
  11. Ask what they’ve learned. Help your child explore what they have learned from the mistake, or what they would do differently next time.
  12. Practice the new behaviour. Children learn by developing ‘muscle memory’ of saying or doing the right thing. So, do a role play where you recreate the incident, and get them to say or do the right thing.
  13. Explain self-reflection is a strength. Help them realise the benefits of learning new ways to react. So, they don’t keep repeating the ‘poor’ behaviour.
  14. Forgive and forget. Once your child has apologised, made amends and talked about any lessons they have learned, it is important to forgive them and to make sure they forgive themselves. It is also important not to keep bringing it up and to move on.
  15. Make sure they know you still love them. Let your child know that you love them no matter what mistakes they make. And are proud of them for their determination and courage in dealing with their own mistakes.

Parents can use the same process

Finally, it is important that we go through the same process when we make mistakes. Children will learn a lot by copying the behaviour modelled by their parents. So, when we have lost our temper or done something we are not proud of, saying sorry is good. Children love to hear when we have made mistakes, what the consequences were and what we learned. It helps them to realise that we are all human!

The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

Need help now? Ready to explore whether investing in some tailor-made parenting sessions would be right for you and your family? Book your FREE 20-minute call with Elizabeth here