How to Handle Your Child’s Mistakes

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When any of us makes a mistake, we must first forgive ourselves, show compassion to ourselves, then let ourselves off the hook. We also want our friends to forgive us, understand we were well-meaning, and let the matter go. Well, these are exactly the elements we need to introduce in our approach to our children when they make a mistake.

Mistakes need to be regarded not as something to harangue and punish, but as windows for learning. Isn’t this how we want our own mistakes to be regarded? The reality is that we make lots of mistakes in our adult life. We lose keys, leave the gas on, lose our way when driving, forget appointments, get into car accidents, overlook paying our bills, neglect to call friends when we said we would, misplace our phone, curse and yell, throw tantrums, drink too much, come home too late, eat the wrong foods, or watch too much television. In other words, we do countless things we want our children, in their young state of being, not to do just because we told them these things are wrong! Where do we come off, so high and mighty, as to judge and admonish them for doing the very things we do, only we don’t have anyone looking over our shoulder waiting to reprimand us? If you want your children to learn from their mistakes, any sense of “wrongness” needs to be removed, so they realize that no matter how much they mess up, they are still okay. There can be no imposing of guilt or blaming. Only when your children are free of fear can they extract the lesson they need.


When we presume we understand the motivation behind our children’s actions and judge them negatively, we trigger in them a sense of helplessness. Sometimes in blatant ways and at other times in the subtlest of ways, we pile feelings of inadequacy upon them. For instance, we make fun of them or even ridicule them, compare them to their friends, and put them down in front of others. We also expect more from them than they are willing or even able to give.

Consider some of the countless shame-inducing statements we make:

You constantly break my rules because you don’t love this family
You don’t study hard because you don’t care about your future
You don’t do your homework because you are lazy
You lie because you don’t care about anyone’s
feelings but your own
You are forgetful and inconsiderate
You are silly for feeling what you are feeling You are rude
You ought to be ashamed of yourself
I don’t believe you, and I can’t trust you
You purposefully hurt my feelings You are mean
You are making things up—you are lying.

In each of these and so many other cases, we presume we know the reason our children behave in a particular way, which of course we are certain comes from an evil intention. To impose such judgments on our children causes them to experience a sense of helplessness. A verdict has been handed to them without their input.

When we approach our children in this manner, especially our teens, they soon wall us out of what they are feeling. So hurt are they by our constant judgment of them that they become immune to our input. We think this is because they “don’t care,” which is to further judge them, again imagining we know their intent. Little do we realize they are tired of living in shame, tired of being thought “bad.” If our children turn their sense of helplessness inward, they are likely to retreat into a shell, internalizing the belief that they are “bad.” If they turn their sense of helplessness outward, they may seek to do to others what has been done to them, which is how a bully is created. A bully is a person who has grown up feeling such disempowerment that to hold it within is unbearable, which causes them to humiliate the recipient of their bullying, making this individual feel powerless in the way they themselves have been made to feel powerless. The reason children bully is only ever that they are filled with pain themselves. When bullying escalates into violence, it’s because the individual has internalized such an intense feeling of humiliation that their only recourse for relief is to unleash their pain on others. Cut off from their authentic goodness, such individuals attack the goodness in others.

In other words, violence in our young people originates from the level of disempowerment a child feels in the parent-child dynamic. When our children are no longer receptacles for our blame and pain, they have less need to release their emotional reactions on others. A child who is respected and whose feelings are honored when it makes a mistake doesn’t turn around and dishonor another person.


Our children learn how to handle their emotions as they observe us during periods of stress. Every day affords abundant opportunities to model being at ease with our imperfections. This means accepting our wounds, fallibility, and the fact that—no matter how aware we may imagine ourselves to be—we operate from a fair degree of unconsciousness. Our children need to see that the mess of life can always be mined for emotional and spiritual gold. Once they realize this, they are freed from the fear of failure, able to accept that mistakes are an inevitable and even essential aspect of life. As we saw earlier, the way to handle our children’ s mistakes is to ask ourselves how we would want our friends to handle ours. Would we want to be lectured to death? Would we want to be reminded over and over how much pain we caused them because we were late for their birthday party? Would we want them to go on and on at us? Would we want to feel as if our love and devotion were in question? Yet this is the way many of us regularly react to our children’s mistakes.

Particularly when our children don’t do well in school, it’s widely believed that if we tell them to “try harder,” “study more,” or “don’t give up,” we are equipping them to overcome their fear of failure. In reality, we are teaching them to be attached to perfection. As a consequence, when our children are catapulted into imperfection, chaos, or not knowing, they flounder. Viewing their errors as reflective of who they are, they become paralyzed in the aftermath. If we then reprimand or punish them, we not only miss an opportunity to show how a mistake can be the gateway to higher consciousness, but we also set them up to become angry, even violent. Before we can help our children uncover what led to the mistake, they need to be allowed to put a little distance between themselves and their mistakes. The conscious approach is to wait until all emotional reactivity has died down and everyone is in their right mind, then sit with our children compassionately, process their mistake with them entirely free of judgment, and show them how they can extract a lesson for the future.