Talking About Failure with Your Adolescent

It's important that parents provide a constructive perspective about failure.

Posted Feb 19, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

You can’t grow through adolescence without experiencing failure.

Frustrating at best, disheartening at worst, failure can cause a serious sense of worthlessness when a painful incident is turned into a personal descriptor: “I’m such a failure!”

Now you have a wipe-out of self-esteem.

So, parents need to monitor experiences of failure in their teenager’s life to make sure the young person is getting through the unhappy experience without significant injury. They don't want the experience of failure to drive the young person emotionally further down into significant despondency.

Of course, parents should never (in disappointment, frustration, or anger) call their adolescent a “failure.” Such a painful criticism from such high family authority can severely wound adolescent self-worth, like being called a “loser” who will never measure up and “win” their approval. Never forget that adolescents partly see themselves through their parents' eyes.

Adolescence is littered with experiences of failure because growth challenges must be continually surmounted, with every kind of failure raising its own powerful psychological issues. Consider just a few.

  • Failure to fulfill a dream (ambition),
  • Failure to follow rules (obedience),
  • Failure to be accepted (rejection),
  • Failure to try (motivation),
  • Failure to pay attention (concentration),
  • Failure to fit in (conformity),
  •  Failure to reach a goal (success),
  • Failure to please (approval),
  • Failure to finish (completion),
  • Failure to get along (cooperation),
  • Failure to win (competition),
  • Failure to stay positive (hope),
  • Failure to be included (belonging),
  • Failure to look okay (appearance),
  • Failure to meet expectations (disappointment.)

Any of these failures, among many others, can be emotionally costly and no teenager can escape encountering some of them along the way. Like missing younger dependencies and fearing older demands, they’re simply part of the discomforting price that must be paid for growing up. Every effort carries with it a risk of failure, so failure is not a problem; it is a fact of life.

It's worth noticing how failure often comes bearing unexpected gifts. Consider a few of the following questions a parent might helpfully ask.

  • "If you succeed in giving your all but don't get what you were striving for, is that only a failure?"
  • "If you don't get what you want but grow wiser in the process, is that only a failure?"
  • "If you give up a futile effort only to find a better objective, is that only a failure?"
  • "If you dared to follow a dream and came up wanting, is that only a failure?"
  • "If you can say to yourself, 'well at least I tried,' is that only a failure?"

Or maybe all that is required is empathizing with the hurt, providing some emotional support, and encouraging the wounded young person to move forward in a healing way. 

Whenever I think about how a parent can help an adolescent process failure, I recall the father consoling his downcast teenager who was hunched over in disappointment, entrapped in self-blame for “failing again!”

“Son,” the older man said, “as far as I’m concerned, the only real failure in life is the failure to try. If a person isn’t failing sometimes that just means they’re not trying hard enough. I admire how you keep after it!”

At that, the young man looked up, straightened up, and smiled: “Thanks, Dad. Just what I needed to hear!” 

Next week’s entry: Eight Self-disciplinary Skills and Readiness for College