Helping Your TCKs Learn to Fail


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” 

- Winston Churchill

TCKs have a reputation of excelling socially and academically, often setting the standard very high for the TCK population. This is a benefit of growing up as a TCK and often results in college scholarships, mastery of an extracurricular activity, and a fantastic and admirable work ethic. Unfortunately, along with that comes the belief that perfection is the expected standard, and mistakes are inexcusable. Some of this stems from the external pressure of being "on stage" from a young age and knowing that, as a TCK, their performance will be critiqued by onlookers from around the world, including those who financially support their parent's job or ministry. Sub par is not acceptable, and failure is absolutely not an option, because they have been taught that their actions have repercussions on others. This pressure, though it may originate from external factors, becomes an internal battle that many TCKs deal with throughout their lifetime. They succeed, and they are praised.  Consequently, they equate the praise to their academic and/or social success which leads to the belief that their outstanding performance is the reason that they are loved and accepted. Or they are propelled by the fear that their imperfection will reflect poorly on their parents, sending organization or business, passport country, and even God. Perfection is not optional, and failure becomes a tragedy. As you can imagine, this places a considerable amount of pressure on TCKs.

The Child Mind Institute says, "Not learning to tolerate failure leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety. It leads to meltdowns when the inevitable failure does occur, whether it happens in preschool or college. And perhaps even more important, it can make kids give up trying—or trying new things."

TCKs are significantly more likely to experience high levels of anxiety than non-TCKs and this often emerges from the internal and external pressure to excel and be above average (Misunderstood, Tanya Crossman, 2016). As you raise your young TCKs, it is critical to foster in them the knowledge that "failure is not fatal" so that they can develop a healthy balance of striving for excellence without being devastated by life's inevitable failures.

Here are some ways to go about this:

1. Don't Expect Perfection. Absolutely encourage excellence, but also reward your TCKs for their effort, no matter the outcome. If you can see that they are working diligently to master a concept, applaud them for trying whether or not they perfect it. No one can earn an A+ in every area of life, and it is critical that your TCKs know that this is not your expectation. Your expectation should be that they try again, work hard, and don't give up when something doesn't come easily, but your expectation should not be perfection and this needs to be verbally reiterated to your TCK.

2. Lead By Example. Model how to appropriately handle the disappointment of failure. Share with your kids when you have failed or have made a mistake, and teach them that missteps are a natural part of life. They are watching your reactions, so be careful to react in a way that you would want them to repeat. Do not negatively self-talk ("I'm so dumb!", "I really should be better at that.", "I'm an idiot."), physically harm yourself or property (smacking the table or your leg, hitting your head against something, etc.), or blame others or the situation ("If it wasn't for ____, this wouldn't have happened.", "I told him I didn't want to take this project on.")

3. Empathize. When your TCKs inevitably make a mistake, acknowledge the negative feelings that accompany it. You can say, "I see that you are awfully disappointed. I'm sorry you are feeling that way." Gently remind them that mistakes are great learning experiences and that they can try again, but don't dismiss the negative feelings that come with failure.

4. Encourage. Acknowledge and uplift your child's positive traits, but not solely on the basis of their performance. Praise your child's unique qualities whether or not they make mistakes. If your child fails a test, say, "That must be so disappointing for you that you failed that test. You are such a smart kid though. Let's see if we can help you be more prepared for the next one." Remind them that they are smart, funny, good at building things, a great dancer, great at science, etc. and reiterate that making a mistake in those areas does not negate that they have those qualities. They can still be a great dancer even if they made a mistake during the recital, they can still be great at science even if they fail their science test. When they fail is when they most need your encouragement to combat the negative voices in their head telling them that they aren't good enough, smart enough, etc.

Equally as important, is acknowledging and encouraging your TCK'S non-physical successes like perseverance, determination, insight, etc.  This helps balance the pressure any child feels that physical ability is the ultimate measure of acceptance and success and will hopefully serve to strengthen their resolve in the face of a perceived failure.

5. Balance Change and Acceptance. Teach your TCKs to accept that "what's done is done" and then work together to find things that they can change to yield a higher chance for success the next time. Failure is a great opportunity to find a better way to do something. Teach your TCKs to  tolerate the frustration of failure and to not become paralyzed by anxiety, but instead to find ways to learn from it.

6. Give them Space to Fail. In order to learn to move on from mistakes and failures, TCKs need to be given the space to fail in a safe environment. This is not something that is enjoyable for any parent, but it is important that children experience failure so that they can learn to move forward after a mistake has been made. TCKs are less likely to be allowed the opportunity to misstep because of the unique pressures that the expatriate life brings for the family. Create a safe home environment where your TCKs can fail and see that your love and support does not increase or decrease on the basis of their performance.

Like many common TCK trends, the TCK's desire to not only succeed, but excel, can be very positive and can lead to many opportunities. It however, must be accompanied with a healthy balance of tolerating, and not being devastated by, the inevitable failures that life brings.  Learning to do this from a young age, will be invaluable for your TCKs as they live overseas, navigate transitions between countries, and eventually grow up and live outside your home.

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