When role models get it wrong

When our cricketing team was caught cheating in South Africa recently, some of the sports youngest fans were left feeling upset and let down. So how do you talk to children about these feelings?

Sports stars and other celebrities in the public eye can become idols for children and teenagers, but that doesn’t mean they always make the right decisions. When role models make very public mistakes, it can have a big impact on their young fans.

As a parent it can be hard to know how to respond to a child who is feeling shame, disappointment or confusion. But the good news is feeling these emotions and talking about it is important to help children develop resilience.

Why resilience matters

It can be tempting to try and protect our children from powerful, negative emotions like disappointment or shame, but these emotions are actually good for children. Experiencing disappointment provides children with the opportunity to develop and practice resilience - a very powerful skill. Resilience helps children to learn how to cope with life’s ups and downs and bounce back. As parents, there are many ways you can foster the development of resilience in your children and turn a setback into a comeback.

1. Validate feelings

Your child may be feeling many different emotions; hurt, betrayal, disappointment and shame to name a few. For children, these emotions can be new and or overwhelming in their intensity. Validating how they are feeling is very helpful and role models empathy. Simply acknowledging: “I know this is hard for you” or “it sounds like you are feeling very confused” or saying “that must be so disappointing” can help children to name emotions they are feeling. Naming emotions can make them feel less overwhelming. It is also important for parents to normalise emotions, once these have been named. You could say something like “it’s really normal to feel disappointed about what happened” or “it makes sense you feel let down”. This lets your child know their emotions are normal, natural and healthy and that it’s okay to feel them.
a mother and daughter doing the dishes

2. Bad people vs bad behaviour

It can be easy to forget that people and their behaviour are two separate things. There’s a difference between being a bad person and someone who has behaved badly. Children can struggle to see the difference.  They may internalise behaviour as being equivalent to who they are. For a child, behaving badly in a cricket match can easily become “I am bad at sport”. Or, having a tantrum can easily become “I am naughty”. This is further reinforced by the way we, as a society, discuss the behaviours of others in the media.

When seeing others making mistakes or behaving badly, we have two options on how we can respond.

  1. We can take our emotions out on others and condemn them. But when we insult others off or online, our children see and hear that. They can internalise a need to be perfect, for fear of rejection and judgement.
  2. We can be a role model condemning the bad behaviour but treating the person with respect and compassion. The behaviour was wrong and there are rules and consequences there to deal with that, but it doesn’t mean the person is inherently bad.

If discussing the cricket ball tampering scandal for example with your children, focus on the fact that the behaviour was not okay and there will be repercussions for those actions; but, also let your children know that it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to forgive those who make mistakes, especially if they do the right thing, own up to it and show their remorse.  

It is also a great opportunity to talk to your children about the importance of role models. It can be tempting to put people we admire on a pedestal and expect them to be perfect – but role models are human too. We all make mistakes and that’s okay. This can also help children to keep things in perspective. Children can find it difficult to judge how big or small a problem is. To a child, small problems can sometimes have big emotions attached to them. Reassuring your child that things can and will get better is important.

3. Family discussions

Family discussions are a powerful tool in supporting children to develop resilience. But it doesn’t have to be a formal sit-down chat, the best family discussions are actually informal and ad hoc. In fact, we recommend having these discussions while doing other physical tasks like driving home from cricket practice or unpacking the dishwasher. Having challenging conversations is often easier for children when they are relaxed, their hands are busy, they don’t have to make intense eye contact and there are natural pauses for them to think and reflect.

In a family discussion, the key aim for parents is to listen more than talk. Be curious! The easiest way to do this is by asking questions. You can download our family conversation starters guide if you're not sure what to ask. Children can be incredibly insightful and may surprise you with their answers. Asking the question also allows them to form their own opinions and make their own realisations. If a child is on the wrong track with an answer, you can easily support them to think critically by asking other questions. Make sure you give your children time and space to answer.

Don’t forget to reassure children that people might be very kind, but occasionally act unkind.  Or people might be very smart, but might still do something silly. No one has to be perfect and our behaviour doesn’t always reflect who we are on the inside.

If your child is having a hard time coping Kids Helpline offers support online or over the phone (1800 55 1800). Counselling and advice for parents is available at Parentline in your state or territory.

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