"Safe to Fail"
“Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement” - Henry Ford
Our relationship with mistakes is conflicted at best. On the one hand, we have inspirational quotes like the one above, lauding the necessity of mistakes. And on the other hand, we are frozen by fear of failure and afraid of the reactions we receive from others. In wilderness therapy, we work to create an environment where it is “safe to fail.” We do this by focusing heavily on communication and mitigating risks to avoid catastrophic failure. While it may be more challenging to manufacture a “safe to fail” environment at home, there are still tools to normalize mistakes, making them a useful tool for growth and connection. 1 - Avoid Accusations - Accusations are a sure-fire way to trigger defensiveness, arguments, or a shutdown. Accusations indicate to the accused that YOU know what happened, that YOU know why they acted out, and YOU know how wrong it was. Do not make your child’s mistakes about you. Once you personalize their failures, you put even more pressure on an already pressurized situation. 2 - Seek to Understand - Instead of accusing, take a moment to learn about the situation. Do not respond with rebuttals to their answers; simply listen and seek to understand your child’s state of mind. What were you feeling? What did you hope to accomplish? Did you achieve what you set out to do? How does telling me about it feel? Do you think this will affect our relationship? How can I help you? What do you need from me at this moment? Do we need to take some space for a minute and come back to this? These are all examples of open-ended questions that will lead to further understanding. If you are full of anger or disappointment, DO NOT process at that moment. Take time to gather yourself, the problem is not going away, and a hair-trigger response will only compound the issue. 3 - Create Meaning - Synthesize mutual understanding into a lesson(s) that can be applied in the future. Did the open-ended questions give you insight into the motivations of your child? If so, name them. Tell your child what you learned, and ask them to do the same. Reflect on the process of discussing the mistake with your child and use it to analyze the feelings present in the here-and-now relationship. Mistakes only stay mistakes when you miss the opportunity to learn from them. 4 - Make a Plan - Take the lessons learned from your conversation and make a plan going forward. If you know that X triggers your child to make rash decisions, then make a plan to avoid it. Or, if it is unavoidable, make a plan to prepare and confront it reasonably. A failure to plan is a plan to fail. Example: For the sake of understanding how to put these tools into practice, let’s look at a rather extreme (but common) example. Let’s say you caught your son smoking marijuana. If this is the first time you have seen this behavior, you may feel scared, hurt, or betrayed and react by threatening terrible consequences as a result of this behavior. If you have seen this before, maybe you are at the end of your rope, desensitized, lost, and unsure of how to be heard. Avoiding accusations is the first step. Allow him to explain the situation. Put the ball in his court and give him a chance to explain. If you raise his defenses by accusing him right away, there is little chance he will approach the situation with honesty. Now, it is possible he may try to hide it. My advice in this situation is to give him space. Bridge the gap by saying, “I believe you are being dishonest with me. I do not like the feeling. When you are ready, I would like to have a conversation, and if you can be honest with me, I am open to hearing your explanation.” The second step is to seek to understand. Use the questions listed above. You might learn that your son is having a hard time in school, and he thought smoking could help him relax. Maybe he tells you about a new friend he has that is a negative influence. Perhaps he feels pressure to be like someone he read about or saw on TV. The point is, there is are an infinite number of explanations, and you will never know which one is true unless you ask. The third step will be to create meaning. Was he trying to be like someone else? Start a conversation about independence and values. Is he having a hard time at school? Explain to him the repercussions of using coping skills that rely on substances. Draw out the root of the behavior and synthesize it into information that applies to the future. Finally, the fourth step is to make a plan. Use the information you have gathered to create a plan going forward. Next time he feels overwhelmed by school, he will reach out to you and tell you what he feels. If he reaches out in time and avoids using substances, you can agree on some a reward or incentive system. Normalizing a mistake does not mean you condone it, and seeking to understand why your son smoked marijuana does not give him a license to continue doing it. What it does do is tell him that you are interested in his feelings, you hear where he is coming from, and if done appropriately, you show him that you can use the information to strengthen your relationship. As with any behavioral situation, there are complex variables that are difficult to cover in this scenario fully. Few conflicts go as smoothly as the situation I have laid out here. However, I believe the principles are sound. If you are persistent, patient, and consistent in implementing these, you will see a difference in the way your children relate to you. As always, if you have any questions or think you could use further direction and advice, please reach out. I would love to help you!