“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 three years ago in the UK. 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 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.
Advice for Parents
It is undeniable that parents often find it painful to see their teenagers suffer the experience of 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.
Park the helicopter. Helicopter parenting leads to 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 protect them from it.
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.
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. Ultimately, the aim of parents is to see teenagers become responsible, well-adjusted adults who thrive. For your teenager to have a clear understanding of what constitutes success for them is another step along the road towards this goal.
Advice for Teachers and Schools
Build a culture that rewards 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 students 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.
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. Teachers, who can help teenagers develop a healthy approach to failure as a means to advancing their learning, give a valuable gift to their students. Learning from failure helps develop resilience, and resilience is regarded increasingly as an indispensable and valuable tool for survival in today’s world.