A fear of failure can be debilitating – it can prevent you from taking risks or trying anything outside your comfort zone. Whilst you might avoid initial disappointment if you were to fail you might also be missing out on one of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences of your life.
Research shows that this fear of failure seem to start in our early childhood years as this is the time we learn at the most rapid pace. From a relational perspective our learning takes place in the company of others who need to guide us and usually do so through punishing failure, instilling fear or by making success seem too important. Although the intention of parents might be purely to help their children grow into conscientious, successful adults this type of learning maintains conditional acceptance. This implies that your child might feel that he/she is only loved when he/she achieves something and that his/her value as a human being depends on these successes.
The saying “what we say to our children becomes their inner voice” rings true as the feedback children receive from their environment shape their self-esteem. With this being said, there seem to be a notion in the new generation parents to go from the one extreme, as mentioned in the example above, of a generation of parents who were punishing failure, to the other extreme of praising children for anything and everything.
Here the solution might become the problem as constantly praising your child to the utmost, telling them things like ‘you are the best soccer player on the field’ might not be congruent/true feedback for your child. Incongruent feedback might give your children a skewed perception of themselves and also maintain a fear of failure even more. Researchers, Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller showed just this in their 1998 study:
“ 128 children ages 10 and 11 were divided into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems.”
Here, being labelled as “clever” almost becomes a fixed identity which the children need to live up to in the following tasks because if they fail that would then mean that they are not clever anymore. Evidently, this type of communication maintains performance anxiety and puts immense pressure on children.
In addition to this, I have also observed another impact this type of praise can have on children. In my practice I often see children with above average and superior intelligence who perform below their abilities. Now, there can be a variety of reasons for this, but a common pattern I have noticed is that these children often hear how clever they are, which they then interpret as having reached the ultimate goal there is. Why continue to work hard if you have already succeeded?
How to deal with success:
As is evident in the above study, a healthy way to give acknowledgement to your child when they succeed at something would then be to point out things that took effort like “you did not give up” “you worked hard” “you pushed yourself when you were tired”. These observations need to be a true and obvious things which the child can agree with.
In addition to this, when creating a healthy relationship with success, it is necessary to ensure that you don’t put too much value on success. Your child needs to get attention and acknowledgement for things other than achievements. Here, building a close relationship and showing an interest in the child’s life will help a great deal.
How to deal with failure:
Failure is part of life and can be a valuable teaching moment for parents. In essence, a child’s failure should not be about you as a parent but rather the child and his/her experience of it, in effect this is referred to as a person-centred* manner of handling things.
This implies not leading the child or communication process, but letting the child communicate to you how he/she is feeling, either verbally or through their body language. Then communicating high levels of empathy back, hence expressing your understanding of how the child is feeling or experiencing the failure i.e. child cries after losing a race; “you are feeling very sad”. In order to keep the conversation open and not impart your own feelings as a parent it might help to question the reason why he or she is feeling this way. From here onwards it is important that you communicate unconditional acceptance (or in other words, a lack of judgment), both towards what the child is feeling and towards the child self – the message needs to be that the child is loved no matter what. Later, when the emotional impact the child is sitting with wears off, the parent can compliment the child for effort, like mentioned above.
Essentially, complimenting children for their effort will encourage them to keep at it, to take risks and have confidence in the skills you pointed out to them. This will foster a culture of unconditional acceptance towards your children – loving them no matter whether they fail or succeed and it will enable them to become adults with a healthy self-esteem.
Leandri Beyers is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Linden, Johannesburg, with a special interest in working with children and their families.
*person-centeredness is a concept developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s and stems from the belief that each person is able reach their own full potential/self-actualization in an optimal environment (characterised by empathy, unconditional acceptance and congruence).