6 Questions to Help Your Child Gently Work Through a Mistake

How to help your child gently work through a mistake

We all make mistakes, and our children are no exception. In fact, helping our children work through their mistakes and learn from them can give them the best examples of how to be resilient, resourceful and responsible adults.

Here’s how you can teach your kids to work through a mistake gently, empowering them to bounce back from bad situations and learn how to apply that empowerment to everyday situations their whole lives.

Mistakes are an unavoidable part of the human experience. We don’t love them, no. But, we don’t grow without reconciling mistakes and learning not just how to avoid them but take responsibility for them when they inevitably occur.

Because the reality is that they do occur, and more often than not it seems sometimes. These life blunders teach us a lot about how to work through feelings like shame, embarrassment, fear and sadness. In fact, they teach us how to become resilient in life.

Resilience is defined as “the ability to recover quickly from difficulties.” It’s an essential life skill we all need to learn. Thankfully, many mistakes in a child’s life are like mini resiliency workshops you give over and over and over (and over again, it seems). And, when we work toward building resiliency in the light of mistakes, our children learn from us that it’s not so much about the mistake, but how we handle it and grow from it.

In the face of mistake making, when we ask our children to evaluate the situation, separate facts from feelings, and develop a game plan, we give them a lifelong empowerment blueprint for bouncing back from bad situations. Essentially, we teach them from a young age how to work through the situations we know they’ll face in life, and we teach them how to handle them with courage, strength, compassion and no shame.

When my children make mistakes, I stop and ask them a few questions about the mistake. I want them to know that none of us (including The Mama!) are perfect, and I’m not looking for perfection in their behavior. What I want them to know I’m looking for is growth in the mistake-making process. We can’t stop them from making mistakes (oh, but if we could!) but we certainly can help them learn from them, grow from them and turn into resilient little problem solvers for sure.

These are the questions I ask my children and have found to be the most helpful for them in the learning process. Perhaps they can help yours as well.

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, and sometimes it’s hard to even figure out what all the ‘facts’ are, particularly when our children are younger. Emotions play into fact telling, and that is something we need to teach our children early on: facts are not feelings.

Let us repeat this. Facts are not feelings, but in this day and age, it seems like facts are secondary to feelings in all situations.

No, we’re not advocating ignoring your feelings or your children ignoring their feelings. In fact, we want them to use their feelings as the lens for which they view the facts.

But the fact is (see what we did there?) that facts matter because feelings can overwhelm us. In fact, science proves over and over again that feelings do overwhelm our children. We have to help them figure out out to use their intuition and feelings in a positive way, though. And, we have to work to help them actually recognize fact from feeling, because as we said, the line is often blurred.

When we help children learn the difference between the two, we give them a vital function of their ability to solve issues now and in the future. When we teach them from the get-go that facts and feelings are different, they can learn to differentiate for themselves as they grow and encounter different situations.

“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.

If we ask the right questions we can help our children build up a solid and factual foundation of what really occurred, and show them how to do that in future situations.

“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?” Active listening makes a huge difference in helping your child not only as they work through mistakes but in other situations where emotions come into play.

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

Question 2: “How are you feeling?”

Once you’re able to show your child the difference between the facts and the feelings, and you’ve set the facts out, you’ll want to address the feelings too. You’ll want to see what’s really on your child’s heart and how the mistake happening is making them feel.

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. When we look at mistakes as opportunities to show our children that they are not defining moments but growth lessons, our children will fear making mistakes less, and find less shame when they do.

Younger kids might have a harder time identifying or naming feelings, so this can be a particularly strong teachable opportunity to give them those words and help them identify and name the feelings they are having.

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.” Relating to them and role modeling how to figure out what is really bothering us about the mistake is a life lesson that your child will use in just about any conflict situation, so making the most of mistakes is really valuable.

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. And, practicing how to be emotionally intelligent is always worth the effort and the role play!

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.

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,”). In teaching them how to gently deal with mistakes, though, 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, and we are the safest and best teachers to guide them.

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.

It’s important for you to stress the value of reconciliation when making some mistakes. Too often, the guilt and anxiety we feel in making mistakes paralyzes us, and leaves us unable to move forward in fear of making the same mistake. Take your children through a positive reconciliation process that allows them to ask for and gain forgiveness in a concrete way. This will help them lose the burden that comes with heavy guilt.

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. And let’s be honest—even as adults we sometimes need some time to let those intense feelings dissipate some. Don’t expect your child to be immediately ready to see the mistake for the learning opportunity you know it to be.

It can sometimes take a few hours, days or even weeks before a new perspective is born from the ashes of a bad experience. It’s true for adults, and it’s true for our children.

Younger children might have a hard time sifting through the debris and finding the lessons, so as always, 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…” They may not seem like they care at that moment, but you’d be surprised at how often you’ll hear about your mistake coming back—and not because they’re rubbing it in your face but because they’ve learned from it and are asking if it is similar for reassurance.

When kids realize there’s a teachable takeaway from every mistake, it adds a silver lining to an otherwise bad situation. And yes, there really is a teachable takeaway from every mistake. Don’t settle with, “I learned not to throw the ball in the house.” Push for the *because* or the *why* that should accompany that. “I learned not to throw the ball in the house because I broke your vase and now I have to use my birthday money to replace it.” There’s a big difference in and power behind your child saying, “I learned to listen to you the first time,” and “I learned to listen to you the first time because if I had, the balloon would be around my wrist like you said and not in the sky flying away.” Obviously, younger children who can’t articulate as well may need more guidance, but you empower children when you help them see a situation’s takeaway from beginning to end, and the actual words come out of *their* mouths instead of yours.

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

Every mistake needs an action plan to reconcile and from which we recover.

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. And, it leads our kids to move away from shame of mistakes and instead take charge of the growth they can achieve as they take ownership of the mistake.

“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. And creating a plan helps them fall into a growth mindset that may just help them to not commit the mistake again.

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.

Mamas, these aren’t just great ideas to use with your children…use them with yourself too. Doing so will help you positively model what you want your children to eventually internalize and it’ll go a long way in helping you give yourself grace too!


Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

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.

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