Failure is not an option – it is a requirement

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | October 11, 2013

We live in a culture where photos are airbrushed and perfection reigns supreme. Our society today provides role models that are seemingly perfect. Teens in particular are vulnerable to wanting to “fit in” by emulating what they see in the media by striving perfection. This pursuit, although noble, is a detriment to young people and can ultimately cause frustration, lowered self-esteem, and even depression. What teens might not realize is that perfection is merely an illusion. In actuality, we are all flawed in some way or another and mistakes do happen. A more realistic view is to understand that mistakes are natural, and an opportunity to grow.

According to Charles Kettering, a great American inventor who contributed to the development of the automobile, “An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he’s in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots.” Teen best understand the breadth of their resourcefulness and resilience through unfavorable conditions. As adults, it is our job to let them fully experience these times to grow, mature and learn qualities such as hardiness and optimism. Although it might seem counterintuitive, it can be helpful to allow teens to struggle and avoid “fixing” the problem for them.

Do you cover for your teen’s mistakes?

Examples of covering from teen’s mistakes include completing his or her late homework assignments, allowing them to stay home when they did not finish an assignment or calling a teacher or coach on behalf of your teen. Some parents will call a teacher if their son or daughter performs poorly on a test and argue with the teacher or ask for opportunities to complete extra credit. Of course these parents are just trying to help their teen and protect him or her from the pain of failure. However, the result is that teens become shielded to the realities of the real world and are missing out on the opportunity to practice problem solving on their own. Though it requires great restraint to watch your teen go through difficulties or potential hardship, your optimistic support can help them understand that these experiences are a part of life. By allowing them to handle problems on their own you send the message that you believe they can handle the situation. Parents who provide a listening ear support and nurture their teen’s independence into adulthood. Simply intervening on their behalf sends the message that they are not capable of handling mistakes on their own.

Allowing your teen to make mistakes

Instead of providing damage control for your teen, think about ways that you can help them use these experiences to grow.  We are all human, and we all make mistakes. The difference between a mistake from which one can grow or become impaired is the process of how one recovers from it. Consider the following questions as a framework to calmly and nonjudgmentally discuss topics of failure with your teen:

  1. Why do you think this happened?
  2. Why did you react the way you did? (Encourage them to use “I” statements such as, “I felt _____, when _________”)
  3. What do you think would have helped?
  4. What support do you need from me?

Whenever possible, avoid being critical and allow your teen to incur natural consequences for their mistakes. For example, if a teen forgets to do his or her homework, the natural consequence will be a poor grade. Though the motives of parents who make attempts to “fix” their teen’s mistakes are coming from a place of deep care and love, these are not the types of reactions that will help them grow and learn. The strategies listed here can help foster critical thinking, minimize conflict within the home, and provide an opportunity for growth and improvement.

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