Part of a child’s job is to learn, and failure is an inevitable part of learning. Failure is also an inevitable part of building resilience. Resilience is the ability to face life’s stressors/challenges, learn from mistakes, and recover. It’s a big cause and effect game happening in your child’s brain.
Our kids fail all the time, especially when communicating what they want or need in the first years of life. As they get older and experiment with boundaries and connect information, they can organize all of that cause and effect and turn it into action. They figure out what works (asking for help) and what doesn’t (throwing a fit), learning and adapting with each new situation.
But somewhere in their early school years, our kids can start viewing failure as a bad thing, limiting their exposure to new experiences, encounters, and achievements. What caused this switch and how can we help our kids embrace failure rather than avoid it?
The Fear of Failure
We can have a powerful impact on how our kids view and respond to failure. A series of studies conducted in 2016 investigated how interactions between parents’ failure and intelligence mindsets affected their children’s beliefs about intelligence. They found the following:
- The way children perceived “being smart” was not related to how their parents perceived intelligence, but to how their parents reacted toward failure. In fact, the more that parents view failure as debilitating (rather than enhancing), the more likely their children were to see them as concerned with their performance outcomes and grades rather than their learning and improvement (fixed vs. growth mindset).
- Children could correctly identify their parents’ beliefs about failure but not so much about intelligence. However, it was their parents’ beliefs that matched up to their kid’s own attitudes about intelligence. In other words, if you think getting less than an A is a fail, then your child thinks that not achieving an A means that they’re dumb.
- Parents’ reaction to failure directly causes their children to have the same mindset about failure. Think Talladega Nights with the whole “If you’re not first, you’re last!” mentality.
As children hinge their self-worth on their successes, failure may make them feel less valuable as a person. Research has found that students will go to great lengths to avoid failure in order to maintain a sense of worthiness.
When dealing with failure, kids mainly fall into one of these categories:
- Success-Oriented – viewing failure as an opportunity to learn and improve their skills rather than take it personally (“Not sure why I got these questions wrong. I’ll ask the teacher to explain it to me after class.”)
- Overstriver – avoiding failure by succeeding through hard work and dedication, but is strongly motivated by the fear of not being perfect (“It’s a 4.0 or bust. The only way I’m going to succeed is if I get straight A’s.”)
- Failure–Avoiding – doing the bare minimum to succeed for self-preservation; they think that if they fail for not trying, it won’t negatively reflect their actual ability and their self-worth isn’t compromised (“Why strive for an A when I can settle for a C? It’s still passing.”)
- Failure–Accepting – believing that no matter what they do or how hard they try, they will fail; any success they achieve is through luck or external forces outside their control (“How did I get a good grade? Maybe the teacher made a mistake or is being extra generous to the whole class.”)
It’s worth noting that both failure-avoiding and failure-accepting kids may choose to place their focus on non-academic areas where they feel more successful, such as sports or the arts. Overstrivers who are driven by fear of failing tend to have parents who punished failure more than praise success, while success-driven children most likely had the opposite (celebrating achievements over reprimanding shortcomings).
From our Executive Functions post, we know that experiences help wire our brain, strengthening frequently used neural pathways and discarding unused ones. When we experience success, our brain releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone) to encourage us to engage in that task again. That activation also lingers for several seconds, making brain activity more efficient the next time we do the task. With each success, the brain fine tunes and processes the information quicker than the last time. So that’s why when we succeed, it kinda feels like we’re on a lucky streak.
When we experience failure, the brain releases cortisol (the stress hormone) while our executive functions are analyzing and figuring out a solution. With each fail, more cortisol releases resulting in more stress. If failure (or even the thought of it) goes unchecked, it can strengthen the circuitry of reactive emotionally-driven regions, hindering executive function connections in the process. Neuroimaging studies reveal that individuals in high-stress states have less brain activity in the higher functioning areas responsible for reasoning and rationality (like the prefrontal cortex) and more activity in the lower emotional and impulsive areas (like the limbic system). This may explain why our kids want to avoid challenging tasks or new situations because their brain tells them it is stressful and unsafe (Who wants to deal with that?).
Failure is Our Friend
Failure should not be feared. With the right mindset, your kid can see the positives in disappointment; like curiosity, creativity, compassion, and of course, resilience. Here’s how we can help our kids embrace failure like a friend:
- Change your attitude. Yes, you. The parent. Remember that our kids learn their attitudes about failure and how to deal with it from us. When making mistakes, respond with humor and optimism. If you had a misstep, dust yourself off and try again. Your kids are watching. In turn, when your kid faces failure, don’t shame them or make them feel worse. They probably already do. If you can’t find the words, just be there for them (hug them, sit with them, hold their hand).
- Promote a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the perception that skills can be developed and refined with time and effort. Children with this mentality are more likely to improve their performance versus those with a fixed mindset (you either have the talents, intellect, and basic abilities or you don’t). You can start cultivating your child’s growth mindset by prioritizing learning from their failure (What do you think went wrong? What can we do differently for next time?). Other strategies include:
- Praising your child for their effort and progress, regardless of the outcomeAltering negative talk with affirmative phrases (“You can’t do it…yet”, “You don’t think you’ll get it…right now,” “You don’t know…unless you try”)
- Normalizing mistakes by talking about the mess-ups of the day, utilizing the acronym FAIL to mean First Attempt In Learning, or the concept of “failing forward”(which is just a short fancy way of learning from our errors).
- Let your child fail. We acknowledge that failure is beneficial for our kids to develop and grow, but it can be hard to watch them struggle. However, without challenging experiences, they may not learn how to face adversity or foster appropriate coping and problem-solving skills. Some activities where it’s ok to have a learning curve include: cooking, card games, bowling, obstacle courses, and video games. These are things that people aren’t “naturally” good at, take repetition to learn, and can always try again to improve.
- Dig deeper. When your child is in a “I can’t do it, it’s too hard” rut, help them get down to the bottom of these feelings. Ask them questions, like “Why is it hard? Why do you think you can’t do it?” By talking it out, you can help them communicate and process their thoughts and find ways to get to a solution.
- The worse-case scenario. If your child is afraid of trying something new, try this exercise. Have your child brainstorm all the worse things that could possibly happen. Then have them list some ways to lessen the possibility of these situations from occurring. Lastly, have them think about how they would recover from each scenario. Your child may not only feel more prepared, but may realize that there’s nothing to be too worked over. Also, reassure them that you will be there for them and even if they don’t succeed, they are still safe and secure.
- Love them unconditionally. You may already do this, but make sure your child knows that your love for them is not based off their grades or success. The fear of failure is directly linked to self-worth. If they fail, they might feel that you won’t love them or appreciate them as much. Let your kid know that you will always love them and are proud of their effort, persistence, and progress.
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Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Parents’ Views of Failure Predict Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets. Psychological Science, 27(6), 859–869.
Fu, Z., Beam, D., Chung, J. M., Reed, C. M., Mamelak, A. N., Adolphs, R., & Rutishauser, U. (2022). The geometry of domain-general performance monitoring in the human medial frontal cortex. Science, 376(6593).
Histed, M. H., Pasupathy, A., & Miller, E. K. (2009). Learning Substrates in the Primate Prefrontal Cortex and Striatum: Sustained Activity Related to Successful Actions. Neuron, 63(2), 244–253.
What Happens When You Fail? – Institute for Educational Advancement
How to Help Kids Overcome Fear of Failure (berkeley.edu)
Sanghvi, N.S. (2020, April 27). Development of Executive Function in Children. Retrieved from Seminar.
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