Natural Consequences Help Kids Learn from Mistakes

Help Kids Learn from Mistakes

This story falls into the category of how to support a teen without enabling – helping them learn from mistakes with natural consequences. Keep in mind that it comes after years of gradually transferring ownership from me to my son, transferring the baton one step at a time. If you have been a student in Sanity School, this is an example of shifting from Stage 2 to Stage 3 in the Parent's Role – moving from modeling to supporting your child's ownership.

Our kids have a hard time learning from their mistakes. In fact, it is a hallmark of kids who struggle with executive-function-based developmental delays. We try incentives, and (sometimes-arbirtrarily-imposed) consequences, but they are no match for a frontal-lobe that is just not mature enough to capture a message, make sense of it, and use it to avoid the same mistake in the future – yet.

My son is no exception to this rule of thumb for kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and related challenges. So I try to embrace it when the outside world comes to my aid, providing natural consequences to help him learn from his mistakes. And on a good day, I try not to laugh in an "I told you so" kind of a way.

Learning from Mistakes:

My 16 year old son was leaving for a 5-6 week summer program, and there were many things he needed to take care of before he left. He rose to the occasion and got much of it done, despite a handful of little things that, while annoying, were really not a big deal.

Of course, he repeatedly told me, "I've got it, Mom," resisting any offers of help to manage his time or organize a list (because he still resists using a list 🙂 ). So I was not completely surprised when the text came in at 6:30 p.m. that first night.

"I forgot sheets and a pillow," he wrote.

"Bummer man." I replied.

Yes, I did. 🙂  True confession – I was quietly laughing out loud, too. In the old days, I might have worried or felt guilty that I hadn't checked to make sure he had what he needed. But he's been in charge of packing for himself for many years, now, and I am confident that he is resilient enough to be able to handle it if he forgets something. And lets face it – he's always going to forget something.

"I guess you want me to send you something?" I asked. (This fosters buy-in and puts it back on his plate, by the way. Remember, this is his problem, not mine, and I want him to ask for the help he needs.)

"yes please. sheets and a pillow, por favor," he replied.

I left it there and said nothing else. It's okay to let him squirm a bit by not diving in to his rescue. A few hours later, the next text rolls in…

"and some shower towels."

"and turns out the water bottle I brought leaks."

My husband chimes in, "Guess we need to send a bottle, too?" (Again, putting it back on our son's plate to ask for the help he needs.)

"yes please. please and thank you. please." My son continued, "I borrowed sheets but I'm using a sweatshirt as a pillow and I don't have towels." Ahhh, a clear natural consequence.

Well, at least he's resourceful and asked for help!

Want to Motivate Kids?

Download a free tipsheet "The Parent's Guide to Motivating Your Complex Kid" to help your child find the motivation to do... anything and everything!

Natural Consequences in Action

The next morning, I began to assemble the necessary items, which were all in one place – the storage bin I had reminded him to visit but that had not made it to his "list."

I texted, "Will get it to you as soon as we can, but it will likely take several days. By the way, do you need a blanket?"

"yes I need a blanket." No surprise here. "not urgent," he continued, "but it would be nice."

A couple of hours later my husband adds to the conversation, "$23 to get there Tuesday. $185 to get there Monday."

I reply, "Sounds like Tuesday. I don't think our son wants to pay $185."

And the kid replies, simply, "nope. Thank you."

And in that brief exchange, the world has used natural consequences to help my son learn from his mistakes. He knows he's going to have to pay for it, he's practiced asking for help many times, and he's having to deal with the annoyance of sleeping with a sweatshirt instead of a pillow for another 5 days. He has not pointed the finger at us in blame, and he's actually expressed gratitude many times. And I never once said, "I told you to go check the camp bin in the attic!"

I'd call that a parent-win!

Of course, you won't be surprised that the next text came in 11 hours later, long after the package was on a loading dock somewhere.

"is it too late to ask for a laundry bag?"

And because this is not my first rodeo, I replied simply, "already included it :-). Good night kid."

And I chuckled out loud, again – grateful that natural consequences can help my kid learn from his mistakes (albeit more slowly than I'd like sometimes), and that I've learned to support him best by stepping back and allowing them to do their job.

Next step, of course, will be to help him process the experience now that he's got a little motivation to pay attention to it. We'll go through the three steps to learn from mistakes when he gets home – but I've got a few weeks to enjoy the ride before we get to that.

More From Anxiety Blog