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Puffed, red-faced and still running – Family conversations that can support children to embrace mistakes and do the hard stuff.

I recently watched in awe as one of my children tried a completely new sport.  He’s a teenager now and is at an age where trying new things isn’t easy, particularly when the rest of the team have all been playing for some time.  Trying new things takes courage – it involves putting ourselves out there, being vulnerable and being willing to make mistakes.  When we do we open ourselves up to a whole world of possibility, however often the reality is that our anxiety gets in the way and we avoid trying something new.  As a therapist it’s great to be able to share authentic examples of your own learning with the children you see and to help parents to do likewise.  What follows are some thoughts about doing so.

Whether it’s taking up painting, joining a new class or learning to bake bread there are likely to be examples you can share with children in therapy about learning new things and making mistakes.  You can share your feelings honestly, noticing your anxiety, and talking about what happened to your anxiety as you began to have a go.  The message that we ideally want children to get is that they can be anxious and still do the things that are important to them.  We can also explore the ways in which having some anxiety can be helpful in new situations.

My son has grown up with parents who take up new sports and activities, speaking openly about the experience of doing so.  He laughs with us about the mistakes we make and celebrates our progress.  My goal of learning to run has provided lots of opportunities for modelling, as well as general humour.  He’s seen me arrive home puffed and red faced.   He’s laughed with me as I’ve celebrated finally being able to run (or should I say jog) a short distance and he’s heard me talk about how difficult this has been for me and how hard it has been some days to keep my legs moving.  He’s understood why I want to get better at this and has seen me persist in doing so.   It’s a story that I have shared with some of my clients too, relating it to their own experiences.

All too often children don’t see their parents trying new things and making mistakes.  Indeed, their first reaction when I suggest their parents might make mistakes is often shock or surprise.  Helping parents to share about their learning, reflecting on new things they have tried and mistakes they have made can be incredibly helpful for children.  Upon prompting, parents are usually able to share some of their mistakes and learning, normalising the experience and offering a helpful model.  Perhaps even more importantly though, when parents share their own experiences of learning it often changes the conversations they have with their children around mistakes.  It creates a culture that encourages children to embrace mistakes as part of learning and fosters the idea that persistence is valuable.

Changing the way families understand and talk about learning is a great way of helping children who worry about making mistakes.  For other ideas about how you can support children who worry about mistakes check out our online mini course.  Further details can be found here

Dr Fiona Zandt
Clinical Psychologist

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