What Not To Say To Your Child When They Have Failed At Something

“It’s only a game.”

17/01/2018 11:36 GMT | Updated 17/01/2018 11:37 GMT

Your child has just lost a match or a competition or a race that was really important to them. They sit slumped in the car, holding back the tears.  As a parent in this difficult position you are going to want to say three things that come to mind. Three things which are completely right and completely true, but also completely unhelpful for that moment. 

“It’s only a game.” 

As you sit in the car looking at your kid heartbroken, the first thing you’re probably going to want to say to them is, “Oh, it’s only a game.” “It’s just a race, it’s just a competition.” And you know what? In the grand scheme of the entire universe, you are completely right. It is just a game, chasing a ball, or a race in a pool, or a bit of a competition. But to your child in that moment, that race, that game, that competition is the most important thing in the universe. And by saying to them, “It’s just a game,” you’re minimising how they genuinely feel about that sporting experience. Whilst you’re completely right, you’ve actually crushed some of their natural desire and passion by dismissing the importance of the game to them. 

“You’ll get over it”

The second thing you’re most likely to want to say is, “I know you’re upset but you’ll get over it.” And that’s completely true. They will get over it. Children are incredibly resilient and incredibly resourceful and emotionally they’re a lot stronger than we often give them credit for. But again, in that moment, that’s not the helpful thing to say. In that moment, they don’t want to get over it. They want to grieve. They want to be upset, and grief is a very normal, natural human emotion and one that we should encourage. Think about the fact that as your child grows up and they experience more significant moments of grief in their life, you don’t want them thinking, “Oh, I’ll just get over this” and in doing so denying their emotions. Denied emotions are never completely forgotten, they come back in many limiting ways. You want them to express that grief, because that’s the healthiest way to approach emotions and it’s the same after an important sporting occasion. 

“You did your best”

The third thing you’re likely to want to say is, “But you did your best, you tried your hardest.” And again, this may be completely true, but it’s not very helpful. It’s a consolation prize. In that moment, your child doesn’t want a consolation prize, they want the prize that they were after. 

So here’s my advice for that car journey. Firstly, make sure your body language and your facial expressions say, ‘I know you’re in pain and I’m here for you.’ Secondly, don’t be afraid of the silence. Don’t be afraid of the tears. Don’t be afraid of the hurt. They’re all part of human emotions and experience. And sometimes we parents rush to wipe the tears away, rush to try and make everything better. In that moment, our child needs permission to honestly express how they are feeling, they need to know they are safely loved by us. They need our presence, our hand on their shoulder, our facial expression that says, ‘I know you’re gutted.’ Lastly, do lots and lots of listening. Let them express their emotions. That is the healthiest thing you can do for them at that point, let them express how they genuinely feel and not bottle it up. 

I know it hurts as a parent to see your child in pain, but it is incredibly helpful for our children to be able to express that pain without being in what they might feel is a judgemental environment. That car journey after a loss is hard on us parents, as well as on our child. And those three things that you’e instinctively going to want to say are completely true, but sometimes as a parent, the truth needs to stay inside our heads and we just need to be there for our children. 

Moving forward 

Allow and inspire your children to grow through this experience of disappointment. When the time is right, and you know your child better than I do so that might be in the car or it might be three or four days later, you might ask things like, “You experienced that pain, what can you do next time to improve? What would help you avoid that pain of disappointment next time? What have you learnt about yourself? Who can you ask for help?” Maybe that will be the way they train, the way they prepare. There could be a huge number of ways to answer these questions. It takes courage to think about what could be done differently. Courage which is best build on a platform of health expressions of emotions. 

It takes courageous honesty to be with a child in pain waiting to say the right thing to support our children on and off the sports pitch.You can see the original of this blog here