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Moving from wrong back to right

Kids make lots of mistakes - they get things wrong, and they often feel wrong too. Moving on and starting again, with renewed energy and optimism, is something we all need to learn to do. As parents, we're in a great place to help our children with this!

Think back to when your child last make a mistake and get something wrong …. It probably wasn't that long ago! Whether it was a maths question in their homework, saying something unkind to their sibling, or staying on their iPad for too long, kids mess up. 

Sometimes it's sort of deliberate, in that they fully intend to stay on the iPad because they're having fun and, to be honest, they often get away with ignoring the request to log off. Sometimes it's because they don't know the 'right' thing to do or say so they give it a go, and miss. And sometimes it's because they're overtaken by an impulse and it just happens. 

Understanding why they did it

If we want to support our child through their mistake and out the other side, there are two important things we need to understand and accept. 

It really is rare that our children mess up with the thought-through intent to annoy, embarrass or frustrate or upset us. Sure, what they do may make us feel bad, and that can push us into Flight & Fight mode and give rise to a strong negative emotional reaction and then things escalate. 

But when we take on board that that the explanation behind the behaviour is very likely to be all about them - their age, temperament, gender, or their physical or emotional state - then we feel calmer and that's going to make all the difference. 

Accepting how they feel

When we are calm(ish!) we're able to consider our child's perspective. The reality is that kids don't like getting things wrong. It wouldn't work if we were wired to enjoy messing up, and wanted to repeat it! Yes, sometimes children cover up their feelings of guilt, shame, and worry by laughing and running away, or even deliberately saying "I don't care" or "whatever".

These are rudimentary coping mechanisms to deny the underlying feeling of regret and disappointment. Don't be fooled or get caught up in it!

Because when we have the presence of mind to accept how our child is likely to be feeling and we are courageous enough to address these feelings directly, we can show our child how to work their way through the negative feelings and towards a better place where they can take responsibility for their behaviour, make amends for what's gone wrong, and discover a better way to improve next time. 

Moving away from The Negative Cycle back to The Positive Cycle

When children feel 'bad' their Limbic System (or Emotional Brain) dominates and curtails any helpful action in their Pre-Frontal Cortex (or Thinking Brain). In this state, they can't think clearly. Their only priority is to protect themselves which usually involves further mistakes in behaviour.

We refer to this as being on The Negative Cycle. It's not a nice place, and it's easy to get trapped there. Effectively, our child messes up, feels bad, gets a negative reaction, feels worse and their behaviour worsens too.


Where's the exit route? Well, we could wait for our child to calm down, recognise their mistake for themselves, and put things right. Or we could take the lead ....

When we manage our own feelings about our child's mistake, and reach out and empathise with them, our child starts to feel safer. As activity in their Limbic System reduces, their PFC comes back online. And now we can have a conversation together about what happened, what needed to happen, what can be done now, and what needs to be done next. These conversations can't happen when the child is feeling guilty and judged, and the parent feels angry and frustrated.

This is not about telling our kids not to feel bad, and that it doesn't matter, and it's all going to be fine. This doesn't make them feel better in the way we want, and it certainly doesn't teach them anything constructive about their behaviour! So it's super-important we recognise that empathising with how a child feels after a mistake is NOT the same as condoning the mistake. 

Going forward

Many of us have a lingering sense that our child needs to feel 'bad' in some way in order to change behaviour. It's often how we were raised and there are certainly elements of this way of thinking in society generally. It's hard to put this to one side ....

Every bit of neuroscience, psychology and psychotherapy shows that feeling bad about ourselves, or other people, leads to reduced self-esteem and lower emotional intelligence, and it damages relationships and increases 'mis'behaviour. 

As parents, we can take the (multiple!) opportunities of our child's mistakes to help them learn something from the negatives, without personalising or internalising it, and move forwards towards a lighter, brighter future.