How to Help Your Kids Cope With Failure

Image via Katie Hurley

Kids face a lot of disappointment, even during the toddler years! In fact, many parents are surprised to find that their mellow little babies suddenly turn into not-so-mellow perfectionists that are full of big feelings, who seem to fall apart for no good reason. Many kids have difficulty coping with failure (a fallen block tower is a failure in the eyes of a 3-year-old, you know), and many little ones tend toward some version of perfectionism between the ages of 3 and 7.

It can be a quick phase, or it can continue well into elementary school, but the key is to teach your kids how to cope with failure.

I will never forget the constant erasing that began during my daughter's kindergarten year. The self-imposed pressure to get everything just right resulted in some big tears and moments of frustration. It seemed like no amount of empathy and understanding would put an end to the meltdowns that occurred in the face of perceived failure, but a few strategies, combined with a lot of patience, helped her see that failure — big and small — is just something that happens. We can choose to let it get us down, or we can choose to find another way.

Easier said than done, I know. If only a quick story or two would curb perfectionism and teach kids to cope. The truth is that it does take time. The good news is that, the earlier you begin working on those coping skills, the sooner they learn to get through the hard stuff.

mother talking with her unhappy son at home
Image via iStock


Kids need to feel understood when the chips are down. While it might feel more natural to say “Don't worry, I know you can fix it!” what your child is actually looking for is “Wow, that looks super frustrating, and I can understand why you're so upset.”

You know that feeling you get when you share something frustrating with someone and that person immediately rattles off ten suggestions to “fix” everything? Kids experience that same feeling. We all want to feel understood sometimes, and a good cry can really help kids vent their emotions and reset their souls.

Try using calming phrases and communicating that you get it. If you have a story from your childhood that relates, share it. Save the problem solving for later.

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Image via iStock


It's tempting to run in for the save when kids cry out in frustration (guilty as charged), but sometimes, the best thing you can do is encourage your child to look at the problem from a different angle.


When my son gets frustrated with a difficult word search, for example, I usually say something like “I noticed that you usually go down the list in order. What's another way to look for words in that puzzle?” By asking my child to give me advice, I empower him/her to work through it from a different perspective.

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Asking a detailed question causes your child to stop and consider alternatives before moving on while encouraging your child to solve the problem independently.

mom helping kid
Image via iStock

Try copycat drawings

Part of learning to cope with failure is recognizing that we're all different. Sometimes, kids feel an intense need to do things exactly right, but the truth is that there is typically more than one way to solve a problem. Copycat drawings are a fun way to show kids that perfect doesn't actually exist and that different is really great.

Start by drawing a simple squiggle and ask your child to copy it. Continue adding more and more shapes, colors, and objects, and make it more difficult as you go. Point out the differences in the copies. Did your child do something to improve the drawing? Talk about it. Trade places and have your child start the drawings. Take the opportunity to talk about what it feels like to try to make an exact copy.

{ MORE: If Mom Is OK, Child Is OK }

Image via Flickr/ John-Morgan

Don't let them win

Board games are a great way to help kids learn to cope with failure in small doses. It can be really frustrating when you just can't seem to get to the Candy Castle! While it's tempting to throw the game to keep the peace, this can backfire. Losing is part of playing games, and talking about how that feels helps kids learn to cope.

I always know when kids magically win every game at home when they play in my office because they start making up new rules the minute they start to lose. Losing a game isn't a sign of failure, but it sure does help kids learn to work through feelings of failure. Play fair and teach your kids to do the same. It will help them cope with bigger feelings down the line.

{ MORE: How to Help Kids Express Sadness }

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How to Help Your Kids Cope With Failure

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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