“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,” said Winston Churchill. You need to understand this before you can help your preteen overcome her fear of failure. Your teen should also be made to realise that failure occurs when there is a glaring mismatch between what you want and what you achieve. The constant need to achieve what you want results in you trying your best to find ways to avoid failure rather than finding ways to achieve success. And, when that concern about achievement is accompanied by a negative self-appraisal, it becomes a fear of failure. Interestingly, in children, this fear is a cognitive developmental milestone that indicates that your child is no longer a child – she is now a preteen.
If you look back on your own life, you will remember the fears you had about various kinds of failure during your preteen years. Situations like asking a question in the class, expressing your true opinion in a group, befriending another person, scoring good marks in exams, selecting a dress to wear, seeking recognition on the stage or in sports performances – all created the fear that you would fail. However, it was all these childhood fears and, of course, the few real failures you encountered, that moulded you into what you are. When you get back on your feet despite repeated failures, you realise that there really is no such thing as failure; it’s all about learning to live. However, preteens are much too young to understand this fact; it is only with time and parental support that they will begin to understand this.
Generally, the fear of failure involves the interplay of three major aspects of behaviour – thoughts, emotions and bodily reactions. The interaction between these aspects results in behaviour, which is why it is essential to take an integrated approach to addressing this issue rather than tackling each aspect separately. Now, let us look at some ways you can help your preteen overcome his fear of failure.
Psychologists have always underlined the value of communication between parents and their children. Family systems make it easier to have good communication among members of the family and parents must ensure that such systems exist. It is not necessary to allot a specific time every day for this purpose but parents should make sure that the quality and volume of communication are good. So, why is this considered so important? During my internship days, my supervisor used to emphasise the fact that there is always a significant reason behind a client remaining silent and that it is our job to figure out what it is. Poor communication or the loss of communication within a family is a major problem but one that can be rectified with very little effort. One little smile will help a person break his silence or stop him from sulking. So, I suggest that as a parent, you should not only be open to communication but be proactive in ensuring good communication with your preteen.
You should listen to your preteens without judging them, without taking responsibility for their behaviour or without trying to mould them. When you do that, it makes them feel really good, as American psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, says. When they realise that you are listening to them, they are able to analyse the way they perceive the world. While dealing with your preteens, you have to be like a mirror, which reflects an image as it is. Then your preteens will correct their views themselves. It is in their parents that preteens confide their misconceptions and poor conceptions about things they come across. It is true that they have their own way of looking at things but the flow of communication has to be maintained and should never be inhibited as it is an effort on the part of your child to become more mature.
Fit between your preteen and his environment
Preteens tend to be self-centred, expecting everything to happen according to their wishes. But in reality, just wishing for something to happen is not enough. If you want something to happen, you need to look for the interaction between you and society. Life is all about the transactions that you make with the environment you live in. In this transaction, individuals have a 25% influence on the events that occur while the environment has the remaining 75%. In other words, while you can manipulate happenings to a small extent, the environment demands that you modify yourself to a considerable degree. Take for example, learning to ride a bicycle. It requires you to change your posture to have the balance required to ride a bicycle and it is different from the posture you adopt when walking or running. It is only when this fit between you and your environment happens that your aim of riding a bicycle is fulfilled. You need to make your preteen aware of this fit when he fixes a goal for himself. And you have to show him it is important to be flexible while trying to attain her goals.
Matching aptitude with desires
Research says that for a skill set to be present in a person, the corresponding traits have to be present as well. If a preteen wishes to achieve something, he needs to have the required attitude as well as aptitude. Parents have to judge whether the nature of their preteens matches with the things they wish for and the possibility of their achieving their goal. Once this match is found, the children need to be made aware of how to go about achieving their goals. This approach will help your preteens aim for things in which they have the highest possibility of succeeding and the least possibility of failure.
Suggest plan B
Plan B is all about managing the unexpected that may happen during the course of executing Plan A. As parents, you can devise a Plan B and discuss it with your preteen. You can get into a kind of behavioural contract and prepare her to face any setbacks she may experience in reaching her goals. You also need to identify an alternative way of achieving the task and make sure she puts it into practice at the right time. This will help your preteen take the pressure in her stride and use it to take action proactively.
Focus on the details
When they want something, preteens are apt to miss a lot of details. They want to experience the joy of achieving their desire but ignore the process they have to follow to fulfill their wishes. The fear of failure is high when they don’t see the steps they need to take and instead, see only the product. As parents, you need to take your preteen through the smallest details for achieving something rather than focus on the rewards associated with the achievement. Let’s say the aim is to achieve good marks in the exams. You should then teach your children to focus more on academic preparation, underlining the importance of homework, daily learning, critical comparison of subject matter, effective writing style, time management in exams, mental stability before, during and after examinations, etc. Also, parents should focus less on discussing the benefits associated with good marks such as admission to a professional degree, a well-paid job, a sophisticated lifestyle, etc.
Give them the freedom to explore
Knowledge has always been associated with light and ignorance with darkness. Fear of failure is less for those preteens who explore what they want. You should encourage them to freely explore the things they want. This will lead them to take charge of their lives. Generally, parents try to dominate over their children, giving instructions on how things have to be done. However, parents need not feel threatened by the independence shown by their preteens and should prompt the children only when adult supervision is needed. This helps the preteens to autonomously explore and get information about things they want.
Connect with them physically
Ask yourself, “When was the last time I hugged my preteen?” Infants are adorable and adults tend to hold them at every opportunity they get. But, as the children grow, this interest in holding them gradually decreases. However, all emotions involve physiological reactions and if you look at the psychology of emotions, the majority of theories were put forward by physiologists rather than psychologists. Fear involves bodily agitation, shivering, heightened psychochemical secretions, high temperatures, etc. It also leads to anxiety in children. Together, these feelings cause the body to experience a sense of discomfort. Researchers argue that a parent’s touch is really important for comforting preteens. Holding them tightly by their shoulder, rubbing their backs, patting them on their cheeks or giving them a hi-five – all these help your preteens get over their fear of failure and, psychologically speaking, build a significant bond between you and them.
To end, I strongly suggest that as parents, you don’t give long theoretical explanations about the fear of failure to your preteens. Instead, put what you’ve read into practice. Teach them that fear is an unavoidable emotion in life and once they overcome it, they can reach any goal.
Exercise for parents:
A preteen wants to win a spelling bee competition but fears failure. How would you help him overcome the fear of failure using the techniques described in this article?
Senthil Kumaran J is an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Kristu Jayanti College (Autonomous), Bengaluru.