6 Questions to Help Your Child Gently Work Through a Mistake

We all make mistakes, and our children are no exception.We all make mistakes, and our children are no exception. Here’s how you can teach your kids to work through a mistake gently, empowering them to bounce back from bad situations.

Mistakes are an unavoidable part of the human experience.

These life blunders teach us a lot about how to work through feelings like shame, embarrassment, fear and sadness.

Resilience is defined as “the ability to recover quickly from difficulties.” It’s an essential life skill we all need to learn. Thankfully, the first few mistakes in a child’s life are like mini resiliency workshops.

By asking our children to evaluate the situation, separate facts from feelings, and develop a game plan, we’re giving them a lifelong empowerment blueprint for bouncing back from bad situations.

These are the 5 questions I ask my own children when they come to me after a major misstep. As perfect as my kids are (to me), I know they’ll continue to make mistakes throughout their lifetimes. Yours will, too.

We can’t stop the inevitable, but can we help our children become resilient little problem solvers? You bet.

Question 1. “What happened?”

Getting all the facts in a situation is the first step in being able to help your child work through a mistake. We can’t help if we don’t know what happened.

Facts are not feelings. Helping children learn the difference between the two is an important part of their ability to solve issues now and in the future.

“I messed up at Jenny’s birthday party and no one is going to invite me to another party ever again!” is not a fact. “Messing up” is one perspective of the actions that took place, and worrying about not receiving invitations to future parties is speculation coupled with fear.

Ask the right questions and build up a solid factual foundation

“What do you mean by ‘messed up’? Can you tell me what happened?”

“Did anyone say you’re never going to get an invitation again, or is that what you think will happen?”

Dig through the information your child provides, and echo only the facts back to them. “So if I heard you correctly, you got mad and yelled at Spencer in front of everyone because he took the last cupcake. Is that what happened?”

Sometimes just stripping away everything but the facts helps reframe a stressful situation for an upset child.

Question 2: “How are you feeling?”

Now that the facts are out of your child’s head and onto the table, it’s time to find out what’s going on in the heart.

Good or bad, emotions are a vital part of the human experience. Shame, fear and worry are fairly common after an emotional fall, but some kids have an extra layer of anger or self-deprecation they have to wade through before arriving to those core emotions.

Younger kids might have a harder time identifying or naming feelings, so this can be a particularly strong teachable moment.

Have your younger child describe how they’re feeling as best they can (“It makes my tummy hurt. I don’t want to go to Jack’s house anymore!”) Then, along with the facts of the situation, help them define the emotion (“Are you worried about what Jack will think of you because you pushed him? I sometimes feel that way when I’m embarrassed, and it makes my tummy hurt, too.”)

You know your child best, so guide them through this step with the proper amount of time and care. Some children move through emotions quickly, while others linger in them for a while before being able to get to the other side.

Question 3: “What (if anything) do you need to do to make this better?”

The hard truth of this question is that some answers to it are just not positive ones. They can’t unbreak the glass, unsay the words, or take back the punch. It’s important that you make sure they know that. Gently tell them that though you understand the remorse makes them feel bad, part of life is accepting things as they are. That includes consequences.

While some mistakes may warrant consequence (“I asked you to stop playing with the ball inside the house, and since you didn’t and broke my vase, you’ll have to use some birthday money to replace it,”) even consequences are great life lessons for our children. When we mistakenly forget to pay the mortgage, we have a consequence. Teaching our children this is a life lesson.

That said, if it’s a genuine mistake and we work hard to make sure we don’t have that happen again, there’s often a grace given to us that we need to show our children as well. Additionally, we need to teach our children to give grace when others seek their forgiveness because that reconciliation of the situation is what helps heal our hearts and our feelings.

Reconciliation for mistakes is essential so that your child knows that even situations that warrant consequence don’t have to be character-defining or permanent, and they can continue working to make things better after they experience that reconciliation.

Question 4: “What have you learned?”

This next question requires a bit of distance from the weight of overwhelming emotions. It can be hard to look at a situation objectively when you’re still clouded with those intense feelings.

When you do ask your child what was learned, be prepared that they might not see the bigger picture just yet. It can sometimes take a few hours, days or even weeks before a new perspective is born from the ashes of a bad experience.

Younger children might have a hard time sifting through the debris and finding the lessons, so offering a similar story from your own life can help. (“I had something like that happen when I was around your age, and what I learned was…”)

When kids realize there’s a teachable takeaway from every mistake, it adds a silver lining to an otherwise bad situation.

Question 5: “What can you change for next time?”

It’s time to put an action plan together.

All of us can feel pretty out of control after making a mistake and seeing the aftermath of our actions. Therefore, coming up with a solid plan to handle similar situations the next time can be very empowering.

“Instead of cheating on the test next time, I’ll make sure to study harder.”

“Instead of hitting Lily when I’m frustrated, I’ll come talk to you.”

Watch your child’s confidence grow. We all love it when a plan comes together.


Question 6: “So, how are you feeling NOW?”

Now that you’ve ironed out the facts, talked out the feelings, excavated the lessons and worked out a game plan for future situations, all that’s left to do is remind your child the sun will still come up tomorrow.

Chances are when you ask this question, things won’t be 100% better. But they’ll be getting better. Fast or slow, emotional improvement is what’s important.

Resilience is built up through life lessons like this one – and the many that will come after it. It’s not a perfect skill, but it does improve with practice.

At the end of the day, your little human is exactly that: a human. We are imperfect beings who make imperfect decisions from time to time.

But with the right amount of love and support, your child will generally come out the other side of his or her mistakes a little stronger and wiser than before.


17 thoughts on “6 Questions to Help Your Child Gently Work Through a Mistake”

  1. So where is the insert for discipline? Are you implying with these steps that yelling at another child, pushing a person bc they are mad, cheating on a test and so forth are not actions that warrant discipline? Where is the opportunity within these 5 steps to inform the child that those things are not okay and earned some type of disciplinary action?

    1. I think that’s part of Question 4, and only if this is a repeat offense. Establishing that there are consequences to actions is important, but if the kid already doesn’t understand what happened, they’re not going to understand why they’re being punished. Perhaps Question 6 should be “how do you imagine [subject of mistake] feels?” and then Question 4 could be revisited.

    2. Mary, I think this scenario is when the child has done something and they are feeling guilty about it. I think the first step would of course be he/she would fix the problem caused by the action, if appropriate some sort of restitution. But the solution here is so useful for any person, big or little, who has gotten stuck in guilt about something, or is afraid they can’t change the behavior, if there is no way to climb out of that, resentment or depression can blossom.

  2. What I saw as an important omission was what are you going to do about it? Restitution, apology, relationship building, all could be worked in. A planned activity with someone they pushed, an apology to all that were hurt by words or physical actions, extra work/taking a new test for cheating…

    1. Restorative practices and restorative justice always include the question, “What needs to happen to make it right?” I use this approach as an elementary principal all the time and it is powerful and transformative. It doesn’t exclude punishment, because sometimes that is necessary and appropriate. However, the goal is to restore the balance and heal relationships within a community.

  3. There is a difference between punishment and c consequences. I love these five questions. It helps children to process their mistakes. If a child breaks a rule that requires consequences. However, you can make a mistake without breaking a rule. This requires processing.

  4. These are so great and are effective for older children and even teens just as they are for preschoolers! Don’t you wish somebody would ask you these questions when you mess up? Metacognition – being aware of one’s own thinking is so important to behavioral change and learning! Thanks!

  5. As a whole, agree with these 5 questions. However, the author is missing a key component in the ethical/moral development of the child – remorse and reparation and atonement.

  6. The five steps are good, however, I would have included a question concerning how the child’s actions affected other people. For example, “When you yelled at Jack at the party, how do you think that made Jack feel?” Children need to realise that their words and actions impact others, if we are to build empathy in our children for others. It’s not just about how our child feels all the time.

  7. I can imagine that my reply might not be given a high five, but here I go regardless:

    Children, before the age of 7, learn largely through imitation. The words we use are no where nearly as effective as what we do-including how we feel about what we do… so, punishment is useless… it simply makes the negative behaviour go underground and more of a burden for the child to bear. And talking to the child, getting them to list their feelings, all it serves is to appease the adult, it doesn’t make the negative intent go away, it makes it hide…

    So, a way forward would be for adults to accept their responsibility in how children behave… what behaviour is being imitated? If a child is hurt, can I give all of my focus to the one who is injured this modelling the behaviour I wish my child to display? Can I moderate my own feelings and behaviour ?

    Parenting is very tough, very revealing, and children are too often being punished for that… I stop here and hope some thoughts are not too offensive.

    1. Thank you Juanna Iadaga…..Children are great observers…..they are either modeling the behaviour or they are may already be internalizing the problems they have at home. Parents that are unhappily married will manifest negative behaviour toward their children. Little kids are captive audiences…the people that they could turn to for safety are not safe people.

  8. Strong process. I learned “why” questions don’t get you anywhere, years ago. I have been in early childhood education for almost 50 years and still find it challenging, so meaningful, joyful, with never a dull moment. I always start with “what happened?” I really enjoyed reading also the other comments and exchange involving punishment vs consequences. To me, it is always challenging to figure out with the child logical and meaningful consequences. I teach Art, PE and after school programs to K-3 students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *