“Teenagers are far more fearful of failure by the time they leave school than they were at 14.” This was one of the findings of a survey of 1000 teenagers, conducted just over three years ago in the UK and published in The Independent. Furthermore, the report goes on to suggest, fear of failure seems to be spread across society, seemingly unaffected by the socio-economic background of the teenagers surveyed.
Fear of failure can, of course, be a crippling experience at any age. It can lead to a lack of openness to new experiences, a restricted vision of life’s possibilities and reduced hope. It can lead to a complete refusal to take on challenges in order to avoid failing in the attempt, and ultimately to reduced self-confidence and depression. Such consequences would be serious at any stage in life, but for teenagers in the process of forming their life expectations and setting their life goals, its longer-term effects can be severely restrictive indeed and end in chronic life-long under-achievement.
The prevailing culture of contemporary Western society is very much oriented around success and happiness. These are widely sought and almost universally lauded as fundamental elements of a good life experience. In this context, it is not difficult to understand how failure has developed the reputation of something to be avoided. However, success and happiness do not necessarily go together, nor does the presence of one imply the other. Furthermore, neither success nor happiness is guaranteed by the avoidance of failure, the experience and handling of which may actually make their eventual attainment more likely.
A moment’s reflection will confirm that failure is a ubiquitous human experience. It is not the experience of failure in and of itself that is important, but how we respond to failure and learn from it. On one level, there is the learning from failure that enables us to do better next time. But at a deeper level, there can come the development of character, the growth of resilience and the ability truly to be empathetic with others.
It is undeniable that parents often find it painful to see their teenagers experience failure. The desire to lessen the pain and to give their teenagers a wholly happy experience of life is understandable. However, I believe it is a mistake for parents always to rush in to try to shield their teenagers from the experience of failure. It is important to keep in mind what might be described as the fundamental purpose of parenting teenagers, namely, that of bringing the teenager safely to the point where they can take on the full responsibilities of adulthood. If our teenagers are given the false impression that life will always appear cloaked in happiness and crowned with success, then they are being fed a false picture of reality. Life is not like that. Happiness and success come bundled up with disappointment and failure, and for teenagers to be equipped to navigate a world of mixed experiences, they need to develop characteristics such as resilience and determination. When failure is faced and responded to constructively, such characteristics are allowed to develop.
Avoid overly protective parenting. Overly protective parenting can contribute to the development of young adults who are ill-equipped to face the modern world with its mixed experiences, including failure. Of course, nobody would suggest that teenagers should be set up to fail, but when failure comes along, responsible parents help teenagers to find a way through the experience and to find ways to learn from it, rather than seeking always to shield them from it. When a chosen course of action does not work out, or subsequent developments show a choice or decision to have been a poor one, teenagers will learn more from being helped to face the natural consequences that flow from the failure rather than seeking ever more ingenious ways to try to shift the blame onto someone else.
Resist the desire to define parental success in terms of your teenager’s success. There is a great temptation for parents to measure the success or otherwise of their parenting by the perceived success or failure of their teenager. This is reinforced by popular culture, which seems to regard successful teenagers as the natural outcome of good parenting. However, if we wish to consider parental success, we should look to the essential purpose of parenting as its measure, namely, the extent to which our parenting enables our teenagers to enter adulthood fully equipped to function independently and responsibly. The mistake of regarding successful teenagers as evidence of successful parenting simply increases the pressure to succeed on the teenagers, who are thereby rendered responsible not only for their own success, but also for that of their parents.
Help your teenager develop their own understanding of success. Success means different things to different people. One of the reasons failure can become such a fearful ogre is that sometimes we accept other people’s definition of what makes for success even when their definition is inappropriate for us. Help your teenager develop the ability to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, to see where they have genuine potential and to set targets that are realistically challenging. If they encounter setbacks or failures on the way, help them pick themselves up and learn from the experience, re-shaping their goals if necessary.
Build a family culture that applauds effort. Of course, success should be celebrated, but recognition of effort is as important. There is nothing even-handed in the way life distributes abilities, be they academic, sporting, musical or other. Consequently, success comes more easily to some than to others. Those who are not naturally gifted in a certain field, but who make progress through their effort, deserve recognition alongside those who excel. Helping teenagers appreciate the value of effort and determination in bringing about progress will help them understand that success and failure need to be understood differently for different people.
Talk about failure. If discussion of failure and what can be learned from it becomes a normal part of family conversation, the fear of failure will be diminished. If teenagers see that their parents are not afraid of failure, be it their own or that of their children, they are more likely to face their own failures and see them as learning opportunities. Honest discussion of failure when it happens helps set this aspect of our humanity in a healthy perspective.
Regard failure as part of the normal learning process. Those who accept failure as part of the process of learning are more likely to make progress than those who regard it as a matter for shame or embarrassment. Learning from failure helps develop resilience, which is regarded increasingly as an indispensable and valuable tool for survival in today’s world.
Recently, there has been an increased focus in Western society on the importance of mental health. This has been brought about, at least in part, by the recognition of a growth of anxiety in teenagers. Fear of failure feeds anxiety, stripping individuals of the desire to grow and learn, taking away openness to adventure, pressuring them to opt instead for the safety of mediocrity. Parents have a vital role to play in helping their teenagers see failure as a positive opportunity. Turning failure from something to be feared into a learning experience robs it of the power to drain life of its enjoyment and challenge. As Carl Pickhardt expresses it, “… failure can either undermine effort or it can inspire determination. It’s the second response that parents need to encourage in their adolescent when failure occurs.”
About the author
Dr. Steve Sims is author of the blog Regarding Teenagers and Director of the Basel Learning Hub in Switzerland.