Failing Safely: Helping Teens Succeed by Letting Them Fail

It’s natural for parents to want to shield their children from harm or discomfort.  Unfortunately, the drive to protect children and build their self-esteem can sometimes lead to parents becoming overly involved in their child’s life, or “helicopter parenting.” According to Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., Director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Michigan, “Helicopter Parents” tend to take too much responsibility for their child’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.  In today’s extremely competitive and often judgement-filled society, parents may feel they aren’t being good parents unless their child is happy and successful. Continually being prevented from experiencing the pain that comes from struggling through mistakes and developmentally-appropriate situations places youth at risk of using drugs and alcohol due to:

  • Decreased confidence and self- esteem. Every time parents prevent problems or solve problems for the child, it sends the message that they believe the child is unable to accomplish the task and creates a dependence on the parent. When children are allowed to struggle through situations, they learn what they can do and feel more confident about themselves and their ability to deal with problems.
  • Lack of coping skills. If a parent is always there to prevent a problem from occurring or swoops in to solve it, the child never learns to manage uncomfortable feelings. This can lead to the child looking for unhealthy ways to avoid feeling those emotions when they arise or avoid uncomfortable situations altogether.
  • Increased anxiety. If children are not allowed to fail and learn from those situations, they will not learn that it is okay to fail. This leads to anxiety and a fear of making choices due to the possibility of making a mistake. When children aren’t afraid to fail, they stretch outside their comfort zone and feel free to try new things.
  • A sense of entitlement. When parents continually make changes to situations or insert themselves to make sure the child is happy and satisfied in school, sports or with friends, the child becomes accustomed to always having their way and will develop a sense of entitlement. They won’t learn how to work for what they want.

Here are some ways you can let go and let your teen fail.  It is difficult at times, but worth the work!

  • Understand that your child’s success and failure is linked to them, not you.
  • Teach children age-appropriate life skills and allow them to struggle with mastering them, even if it takes longer or is frustrating for both of you. Tell your child that it will be tough at times, but you have confidence that they will figure it out. Encourage, encourage, encourage and be sure to make yourself available for guidance when needed.
  • Praise effort more than you praise accomplishment. When you give positive attention toward their coping with a difficult situation and working to manage it, it sends a strong message that you don’t expect them to be perfect. With all the “perfect people doing perfect things” they see on social media, your teen desperately needs to know that it’s okay to not be the best at something.
  • Support their independence. Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and exploration. By allowing (and encouraging!) your teen to be independent in areas that are age appropriate, they will learn more about themselves than you could ever teach them.  Set clear and specific expectations and boundaries and offer guidance when your child becomes frustrated or needs redirection.
  • Reinforce limits and boundaries. Teens test limits as a way of testing their independence and this helps them feel secure and safe. It’s a good thing, even if it is frustrating for parents. Be sure to stick to your expectations for them and follow through with consequences when they are not met.
  • Teach children to speak up for themselves. Children who are assertive will be able to advocate for and defend themselves in tough situations and also feel comfortable asking for help when they realize they are in over their heads.
  • Assign age-appropriate responsibilities at home. This is important for so many reasons! Children need to learn to take care of themselves, their belongings and the area around them. When they take on age-appropriate tasks ,they contribute to the family, learn responsibility and take pride in their work.
  • Allow children to make age-appropriate mistakes that test their abilities and judgment. Your child may be sad once he realizes he left his 3rd grade book report on the kitchen table, but facing the consequences of not having his assignment will help him pay more attention to how he packs his backpack and prepares for school in the morning.  A failed exam due to not leaving time to study will not keep your teen from getting into the college of their choice.  It will, however, be a great opportunity for them to experience the consequences of poor time management in a less damaging situation than they will find out in the world.
  • Set an example.  If you constantly criticize yourself, always depend on others to do things for you or don’t take appropriate chances out of fear of failure, your children will model the same behavior and self-image.

When your child fails, makes a mistake or something uncomfortable happens, here are some tips for helping them learn from it and move forward:

  • Help them name and then “sit” with feelings during difficult situations. Acknowledging their feelings and then allowing them to experience those emotions without trying to make them feel better will teach them that it’s okay to feel difficult emotions and they won’t always feel that way.
  • After they have processed their feelings, encourage them to think of their strengths and what they can do differently next time. In video games, the player gets to explore new levels through trial and error. Each time they make a mistake, they naturally correct themselves until they reach the end. When your child has failed, remind her that it’s not over!
  • Make time to talk about the process. What did your child like about trying something new, even though he didn’t achieve his goal? What did he learn during the process?  What goal does he want to set next?

Parenting can be overwhelming at times, but trust yourself and your instinct to do what you feel is best for your child.  When you have confidence in yourself and your ability to parent for your child’s best interest in the long-run, your child will pick up on it and also learn to trust themselves.

Parents, talk to your teens.  They will listen!

Additional Resources

Lahey, Jessica. The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.




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