When Failure Feels Like the End of the World

Many of us are able to bounce back from failure. But for kids who are in trauma, failure can sometimes feel like the end of the world.

By Momentous Institute | Dec 18, 2015
When Failure Feels End

When Failure Feels Like the End of the World: A Guide to Helping Children with Trauma Navigate Failure
No one loves the feeling of failure. But as we learn to be resilient, many of us are able to bounce back and even grow from these experiences.  But what happens to the child who has experienced trauma in their lives? Sometimes it’s much harder for these kids to navigate the tricky world of failure. Sometimes failure feels like the end of the world.
A child who has grown up in a chaotic home may have learned that mistakes are not okay. If she gets physically punished or emotionally shamed for making mistakes, she’s certainly going to try to protect herself by avoiding things that might cause her to fail.
A child in trauma may have learned that failure has negative consequences. He may not have ever seen that safe, controlled type of failure that allows us to grow, and has only seen big, harmful effects of failure, such as a parent losing a job which caused the family to miss rent payments and have to move. He may be afraid that his act of failure will affect others or will severely damage his life.
These children may not have any experiences of failure leading to growth or positive outcomes. Children raised in chronically stressful homes may be conditioned to see the world through a negative lens. Their parents and caretakers may not have ever encouraged positive thinking or optimism in the face of challenge. Add in that they might have a limited ability to comfort or soothe themselves, and failure begins to feel like the end of the world.
How can we help these children find appropriate ways to take safe risks and encourage constructive failure? Patience and compassion are key.
First, we have to have empathy for these children (we have to chase the why to understand where they’re coming from). Once we know that a child has a trauma background, we can approach them with a new sense of compassion.
Of course he’s afraid to take risks – risks have had major consequences in his past.
I understand why she gets so upset when things don’t go her way. She’s used to being punished for it.

Then, we have to exercise patience as we help these children navigate failure.
We can start by modeling failure. When we mess up in front of kids, we can show what it looks like to correct it. “Wow, this morning I made a mistake and photocopied the wrong worksheet for our class! We are going to work on this other activity for a few minutes while I get the correct worksheet copied for you.” Or, “Can you believe that today I forgot my coffee on the counter at home? What a silly mistake. I had to stop on the way to work and get coffee. Oh well, we all make mistakes!” It’s okay to even mess up on purpose, like by spelling a word wrong on the board and then stepping back and saying, “Hmmm… I don’t think I spelled that right. Let’s see. I think I made a mistake. I’ll erase it and start over.”
After you’ve demonstrated that mistakes are okay, you can encourage children to make small mistakes with minimal consequences. Introduce simple games with setbacks, like Chutes and Ladders. For a child who gets upset when she has to go down a chute, you can use simple language that lets her know that it’s okay. You might say something like, “I can see that you’re really upset that you have to go back. Is it because you’re trying to do a really good job at the game? It’s good you want to do things right, and it’s okay if sometimes we don’t. This is a new game for you, so you might not know that you get another chance to take a turn, even if you have to go back this time. Let’s let the other players take their turns, and then it will be your turn again.”
Traumatized children, like all children, need soothing, validation, comfort and compassion in order to learn that they can recover from setbacks. It won’t happen overnight, but you can create a safe environment where a child learns to feel comfortable taking risks and exploring his world. And that’s an incredible gift to a child who has suffered trauma. More than anyone, these children need to learn resilience and optimism in order to rise above their situation and thrive.