Helping Youth Overcome Failure

Setbacks in life are inevitable. No matter how hard we try, we all fail sometimes. However, even though we all know that failure is a normal part of life, we fear it. We wonder how it will define us, what other people will think about us, how we will recover, and whether we will ever be successful. Ironically, despite our worst fears, we learn a lot from the experience and it often leads to our eventual success. Failure is actually a crucial step on the path to learning.

As a parent, it can feel even more painful to watch our children fail. They seem so vulnerable, and as parents, we feel our role is to protect our children. We hate to see them hurt. Despite these feelings, research and experience demonstrate that failure builds strength, resilience and confidence. When children get knocked down, dust themselves off and get back up, they realize that failure does not define or defeat them. Our brains grow and develop whenever failure occurs, and if we can help youth understand this concept, we will do far more to promote their esteem and overall success then if we only try to protect them from failure. In fact, many experts believe that challenges are the only way we develop certain coping and problem-solving skills, and when we shield children from adversity, key brain connections cannot develop.

Raising a teen that can accept and overcome failure results in a young adult who is independent, responsible, confident, and ultimately successful. So, with that in mind, how do we help youth develop a healthy perspective on failure? Try these tips to teach teens that failure is valuable, important and necessary:

Be supportive but not enabling. When your child makes a mistake or life treats them unfairly, your response must be balanced. At first, you need to provide support, but then you must follow up with perspective. In the beginning, you should validate your teen’s feelings and be the shoulder they can cry on. Let them know that you see their frustration and understand their disappointment. You must give them time to feel and label their emotions. But don’t let them wallow in this state. After they have some time to process their feelings, don’t treat them as a victim. Let them know you are confident in their ability to bounce back and to overcome their hardships. Ask them what they can learn from the experience. Help them to view the experience realistically. Encourage them to consider what they would do differently next time. Express certainty that this failure will not define them and belief that they will be able to surmount the challenge.

Place more emphasis on character than accomplishments. On a consistent basis, choose to praise your child’s hard work, efforts, or their diligence in following their own personal values, rather than praising their achievements. A person’s character always trumps ability. Talent will only get someone so far, but hard work will create success. The student who is naturally gifted and earns straight As with little effort is much less ready for adulthood than the student who earns Bs by putting forth consistent effort. Your child’s work ethic and persistence is far more important than any results or outcomes they achieve.

Believe in your teen. Your teen needs to believe they are capable of handling difficulties and managing their emotions. Their belief largely depends on YOUR belief in them. If you jump in to their every problem and try to fix it for them, you are inadvertently communicating to your teen that you don’t think they are capable of handling situations on their own. They begin to view themselves as weak and unable to deal with life’s difficulties, which makes them anxious. Instead, when your teen is facing a challenge, try pointing out times in the past that they have handled problems well or mention specific skills or talents your teen has that you think will help them be successful this time. Instead of giving your teen a plan, ask them, “what’s your plan?” This makes it clear they are still in control of their own behavior and that you believe they are capable. If they are having trouble developing a plan, offer to brainstorm ideas with them.

Encourage healthy risks. Youth can be so afraid of failure that they only take the easy route. Your teen will learn a lot more by failing at something difficult than succeeding at something easy. So, encourage your teen to try new things or explore something that feels challenging and praise their efforts and courage over any result they achieve.

Let go of control. We can sometimes be too controlling as we raise our teens. Sometimes that’s because we haven’t learned how to transition from raising a young child who needs help with everything to a teenager who only needs some guidance. Sometimes our desire for our teen to have a happy or successful life is so strong that we want to make it happen for them. Ironically, if we really want our children to become successful in life, we have to let them try things on their own and learn from their failures. In addition, if we are being too controlling, then every time your teen is successful, they will feel a bit like an imposter. They are smart enough to know when they have succeeded on their own or when they have succeeded because their parents did it for them. Not only does your teen need the freedom to fail on their own, they also need the freedom to succeed without having to give you the credit.

Final Thoughts…

Sometimes, we, as parents, are the ones who are afraid of our child failing. We might feel that their mistakes reflect poorly on our parenting or that their disappointment will be too hard to bear. To face our own fears about letting our children fail, ask the following questions:

  • How would I parent right now if I weren’t afraid (or anxious)?
  • Are the consequences of the mistake my child made, or might make, permanent or life-threatening?
  • What will my child learn if I step back and allow this situation to unfold?

These questions offer us some perspective and might reduce our own fears. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer our children is the opportunity to overcome a hardship.

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