One of the favourite age groups I work with in my clinic are the clients between the ages of 18 and 23. Many young people have a wonderful capacity for flexible thinking which makes my job easier. Without the responsibility of child-rearing, complex finances and other problems associated with mature adulthood, life feels full of possibilities.
For some of the young people I see, that’s exactly the problem. The opportunities seem so endless that instead of it filling them with excitement about the possibility they become paralyzed, unable to make a decision about their future path. The fear of failure: making the wrong choice or failing, sometimes seen as the same thing, feels overwhelming.
For some the fear of making the wrong choice seems to make choosing impossible. Some worry about accumulating student debt if the choice is not correct, for others it’s the perception that they should know what is right for them before they’ve even begun. And for others, it’s the fear that they won’t like the path they’ve chosen or won’t be good at it.
Its not uncommon for clients in any age group to seek me out wanting an opinion. Tell me what to do, tell me what to choose, please help me make the right decision. Some of these young people are the same. Underneath their desire for guidance is wanting to be spared the anxiety of choosing or having the responsibility of the choice taken from them guided by an unwillingness to bear the pain of being wrong or making a misstep. In the space between us I hear these young people say “Help me make the decision, so I don’t have to feel anxious about it anymore”.
Some are disappointed when I tell them that won’t be helpful. Others are relieved. They’ve already had a parent or teacher give them advice or tell them what to do. That advice didn’t make the situation any clearer or the risk seem any less. Maybe they were worried I’d be another person just telling them what to do.
Instead, I tell them that living authentically is about choosing in the face of possible failure. Growing into adulthood means accepting that some things are uncertain and no amount of wishing or struggling is going to change that. The next step will most definitely involve a certain amount of risk, courage and hope no matter what they choose. The only other option is to not choose and this option comes with its own set of problems, namely the unpleasant feelings they are seeing me for in the first place. In fact, I say, many of the choices worth making involve the risk of failure and the anxiety that comes with that.
I also share with these young clients my own story of failure and misstep with my first choice of study after high-school. Of spending a year doing a course that I thought I would love, that I’d focused as my goal for much of high school and finding myself bored, uninspired and certain this was not leading to the meaningful life I was destined to live. I chose psychology based on the fact that I wanted to learn more ideas and I found people’s behavior and motivations interesting.
The story surprises some clients as some seem to imagine that I was born knowing I wanted to be a psychologist. I am confident in what I do so perhaps this story feels mismatched with the person they see in front of them. Surely this woman wasn’t once a 19 year-old with no real clue about what she wanted to do. Or perhaps it is their surprise at the disparity between my original choice of studying classical music and the field of psychology. Mostly I think it’s because it challenges their belief that successful people knew what they wanted before they began.
My purpose for sharing the story is to help my young clients understand that failure isn’t the end in fact it’s just the beginning. My story is a living example of how getting something wrong means temporary failure, rather than permanent failure.
Often failure teaches you what you need to know. Sometimes you can’t know if you love something enough to absorb yourself in it until you try. The experience of what you don’t like can lead you or point you in the direction of what you do need.
4 Ways to Help a Teen Who Overcome a Fear of Failure
As you parent your teen and young adult, you can help by taking care in the way you respond to failure or the possibility of failure. If failure is seen as unacceptable, disappointing in the long-term or as a result of a moral weakness (not trying enough, being lazy) it is more likely your young person will struggle to make choices or experience intense anxiety about the possibility of failure. Instead:
2. Communicate a growth mindset approach.
In a growth mindset, failure is seen as a teacher. It is a part of life and learning, rather than something to be avoided at all costs. Failure is an opportunity for growth, either in recognizing what needs to be done to achieve success, for example, build a particular skill, practice more or asking for help.
3. Give your teen opportunities to fail.
An important part of parenting is allowing your child to fail in order to build these skills and to recognize they have what they need within them, whether they fail or succeed. It means sitting through your child’s attempts at a sport or interest that they love but don’t excel at without pulling them out before they risk becoming aware of their failure, it means teaching skills of practice and persistent and positive thinking, “I can’t do it yet, but I will get there.” It means being able to talk about a low math result from a strategy point of view, “what skills do we need to build here?” rather than a shaming, “this result is unacceptable” response.
4. Walk your talk.
Growth mindset doesn’t just apply to kids, teens and young adults. The best way parents can coach a growth mindset is to live life with a growth mindset approach. So go ahead, risk failure, take up new things and show your kids when you fail and what strategies you use to cope with that and to move forward from failure. Talk about your past failures and your responses to that including what worked and what didn’t and what you wished you’d done differently.
Show your young person that failing does not mean life is over, instead it is just beginning. Walking your talk is always better than just talking the talk in the game of parenting and helping your young person to develop a growth mindset is no different.
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Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in perinatal psychology, parenting and trauma. Nadene’s writing has been published in many online publications including Parent Co and PsychCentral. Join the Unshakeable Calm facebook group for science-based tips for calmer and confident living.