Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and failure

Lessons from adolescent failure can be formative

When psychiatrist William Glasser wrote "Schools without Failure" back in 1975 he did a great service by focusing attention on the damage failure can do in education, all the ways it often sets young people back. "Too many students fail in school," he wrote over a quarter of century ago. I believe this observation is still true today.

While failure may provide an incentive for trying harder for some, it often teaches discouragement and resignation for many others. School failure itself can inflict the sting of punishment. "It's meant to show me how badly I am doing," was how one sixth grader explained it.

The experience of failure can be a formative one when it convinces children that how poorly they performed is the best they can do, is evidence of their innate lack of capacity, and justifies giving up on themselves. This is particularly true for adolescents who daily struggle with multiple questions concerning personal inadequacy and tend to take any kind of failure to heart.

"If I fail to make the team, am I incompetent?"
"If I fail to win the game, am I a loser?"
"If I fail to get a date, am I unattractive?"
"If I fail to keep a friend, am I a reject?"
"If I fail to be invited, am I unpopular?"
"If I fail to please someone, am I a disappointment?"
"If I fail to learn the first time, am I stupid?"
"If I fail to conform, am I a misfit?"

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Those adolescents who answer "yes" to any of these questions add to their negative mind set about themselves. At worst, when one experience of failure represents the likelihood of failure forever, and when failing performance is equated with being a failure as a person, then sense of failure has been given lasting value. "I will always be a failure" and "I am nothing but a failure" are destructive judgments because they depress effort and disable hope.

Failure is punitive not because the teacher is trying to punish the adolescent student, but because the adolescent student uses the experience to stigmatize him or herself. "I messed up again!" "I can't do anything right!" "I'll never learn!" "I'll never pass!" "Everyone's smarter than me!" "I'm really dumb!" "I don't know anything!" "It's not worth trying!" When school becomes a place of certain failure, many students come to hate going to school, acting out their unhappiness while they are there.

Yet failure doesn't have to be. Many years ago I talked with a teacher who described how she turned a 6th grade student from a path of hopeless failure onto another that offered some hope of accomplishment. This is what she told me.

"The problem with Tony was that the combination of his lack of effort and experiencing constant failure had convinced him that giving up was the best he could do. So I tricked him into seeing that, in fact, he had learned much more than he gave himself credit for. On a classroom test that was the same for all the students, I made an exception for Tony, although he didn't know it. To all the other students, the test was based on what I wanted them to know, but Tony's test was mostly based on what I knew he already knew. When I graded and gave all the tests back, Tony was truly shocked. He actually came up to me thinking there had been some mistake. He'd never gotten a 93 in his life! So we went over his answers and then I told him that the test showed he had really learned a lot. He was a smart person and could do better for himself if that was what he wanted. Then for the next month, I kept close watch on what he seemed to be learning, modifying my tests for him less and less as he grew in confidence and mastery until he was taking the same test as everyone else. He never made a lot of A's, but he did become a student who decided he was worth making an effort for. I think that's the problem with a lot of failure. It causes students to lose faith in their capacity and their chances. They can decide to stop trying."

I agree with the teacher. The experience of failure leads to a choice point. Like two kindred hardships in life, rejection and disappointment, 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. 

The example of maintaining effort after a hard failure that always comes to mind is from a counseling session with a mom and her high school daughter who, after unrelenting practice, failed to make the cut as a cheerleader. The mom was bereft for her daughter. "I'm so sorry for you," she comforted, "you worked so hard! Are you going to be all right?" She was responding to the sense of failure, rejection, and disappointment that her daughter must be feeling.

That's when the daughter looked at her mother, took the woman's hand, and broke into a reassuring smile. "Oh Mom," she said. "It's not the end of the world! I'm going to be fine. I'll just figure out the next best thing I want to do and go after that."

Shrugging the setback off, the teenager didn't even miss a step. Treating failure as a choice point, she was already considering her options and preparing to move forward for herself again.

Somehow this young woman understood seven essential points about failure.

-- Failure can be evidence of effort.
-- Effort means that doing something matters to you.
-- No one wins on every try, but trying can win what you want.
-- Not getting the outcome you want does not deny the effort you made.
-- Failure may disappoint, but making the attempt boosts self-respect.
-- With every single try you strengthen your capacity for effort.
-- The only real failure is the failure to try and keep trying.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Five psychological engines that drive adolescent growth.

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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