By John Townsend, Ph.D.
It is no fun when your teen fails. She may fail in a number of areas: school, friendship, sports, music or art. As a parent, it is tough to experience her failure. You may want to fix it and make it all better. You may want to help her look at matters more positively. However this plays out, one thing is certain: your teen will fail for the rest of her life. So you need to help her learn to fail well. It is simply inevitable. So look at this as a skill that you can help her learn. Here are the keys:
Normalize failure before the next one. Don’t wait until she struggles again. Your words can prepare her mentally and emotionally for the next one. The process is callednormalization, and as the word indicates, it means you help her see that failure as normal and expected. It is just part of life. This is important because teens are natural perfectionists. They expect life to be perfect, you to be perfect, and themselves to be perfect. So they are not prepared when those three worlds don’t work right. They get upset, they yell, they feel guilty and ashamed, they act out. But as a parent, your job is to say, “When you fail, I will help you. It doesn’t change anything about how I feel toward you, and we will get through this.”
Limit your story. A common problem parents have is the, “When I was your age I failed in thousands of ways, so sit down and I’ll tell you all about them.” I’m sure your story is important to you. But it is not nearly as important to your teen. Her story is much more important to her. So limit how long your “journey and path” story is, maybe 30 seconds max. Then she will understand you are making it about her, and not you.
Listen first, perspective second, solutions third. There is an order of how you can most help your teen when her life stumbles. Listening always comes first. Give her eye contact and your full engagement. Ask questions and be active: “How did it feel when the coach put you on the third string?” “That must have been hurtful/frustrating/difficult/scary/sad.” “Sounds hard.” Avoid the typical parent trap of moving straight to solutions. This is most of the time because you are anxious and don’t like to see your teen hurt and struggle. The problem is that she doesn’t feel listened to then, and whatever helpful information you have, she is not likely to listen to. And this is very important: before you discuss perspective, ask your teen if you understand. Ask, “Do I get it now?” If the answer is no, keep listening and working until she says, “Yes, you get it.” Otherwise, you lose time and energy.
Perspective comes after listening. This means you help her get the larger, 50,000 foot above sea level viewpoint. As long as her failure is not the end of the world, it is not the end of the world! Teens have a tendency to catastrophize: “I’ll never find a boyfriend like him again” or “I’ll always suck at volleyball.” After you listen, provide help by statements like, “It is hard, but I think you are a great and attractive person, and you’ll find someone” or, “I’ll help you practice and learn new skills so that you feel better about your volleyball abilities.” This helps calm her down.
It might also help for you to talk about failure in general. It helps teens to briefly hear a parent say things like, “Let’s look at this as a lesson, no shame in learning lessons. What do you think you can learn from this?” Be careful here, because teens hate to feel like they are being preached to. But there are those teachable moments in which you can slip in these conversations!
Solutions come last. That means you want to brainstorm with your teen on actions that will help them:
- How they can pull up their grades
- How to solve the conflict with their friend
- How to develop better sports skills
- How to get off drugs if they are struggling in that area
Having solutions, and being part of coming up with these solutions, strengthens your teen. The process gives her confidence that she is able to handle life and doesn’t need to be afraid of challenges.
Remember when you were a teen. Failure was not fun! Be patient and be engaged, it will work.