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“Only those who dare to fail can ever achieve greatly.”
- Robert F. Kennedy
As a teacher, I’ve noticed one factor that consistently holds students back in the classroom: fear of failure. When my students are afraid to fail, they typically respond to challenges in one of two ways:
- They give up before they even begin, preferring to avoid the possibility of failure.
- They get upset and down on themselves when they don’t get something right the first time, resulting in anxiety and poor performance.
I’ve started to notice that my two-year-old daughter, too, gets frustrated when something is difficult for her, sadly saying, “I’m not good at [insert challenge here].”
For my students, my daughter, and countless other children, the fear of failure can be crippling. But there has to be a way to change this, right?
Determined to find the answer, I sat down to research proven ways to help children overcome the fear of failure. I’m trying these six research-based strategies with my students and my daughter, and I invite you to try them with your kids too!
1. Change Your Attitude About Failing
Children learn from our example, so we have to be mindful of our own responses to mistakes and failure.
Stanford University researchers Carol Dweck and Kyla Haimovitz have found that kids learn their attitudes about failure from their parents. By watching their parents, children develop one of two ideas: that failure is “enhancing” or that failure is “debilitating.”
When you make mistakes, try to respond with positivity or humor. Talk to your child about what you’ve learned from your mistakes (whether past or present), and be willing to pick yourself up and try again.
When your child struggles, try not to show worry or anxiety. He will pick up on this. Instead, do your best to demonstrate an optimistic attitude.
It’s a great idea to take this a step farther and actually encourage and celebrate your child’s mistakes.
Spanx founder Sara Blakely says that her dad used to encourage Sara and her brother to share their failures each day around the dinner table. He used this as an opportunity to celebrate their effort: If they hadn’t failed, then they hadn’t tried anything challenging that day.
When life didn’t go Sara’s way or she felt embarrassed about a mistake, her father advised her to write down the “hidden gifts” or lessons she had gained from the experience.
Similarly, Kelly Holmes, the author of Happy You, Happy Family, has shared a unique approach to helping her daughter learn spelling words.
When her daughter spells a word wrong, Holmes smiles, gives her a high-five, and says, “High-five, you’re learning!” This approach has positively impacted both her daughter’s attitude about spelling and her spelling test scores.
2. Emphasize Effort, Not Ability
Along the same lines, it’s important to emphasize effort rather than ability.
Don’t pity or comfort kids for “not having enough ability”. Demonstrate that performance is not about ability. It’s about effort, practice, learning strategies, determination, etc.
This doesn’t mean you should simply tell your child, “Try harder,” when they struggle (especially if they have truly made an effort). But you can discuss specific strategies that might work next time, rather than saying something ability-oriented like, “It’s okay if math isn’t your best subject.”
The same is true when we praise our kids.
In a variety of studies, Carol Dweck and her colleagues studied hundreds of 5th grade children, praising one group for their abilities and the other for their efforts.
Both groups were challenged with a difficult test designed for 8th grade students. The group who was praised for their effort tried very hard, although they naturally made plenty of mistakes. The group who was praised for intelligence became discouraged when they made mistakes, seeing these errors as a lack of ability and a sign of failure.
Overall, intelligence testing for the “effort” group increased by 30%, while it decreased by 20% for the “ability” group, all because of different attitudes about mistakes and failure.
Read more about how to praise your kids in the research-based "Ultimate Guide to Praising Kids".
So whether you’re addressing success or failure, emphasize effort (and the process) over ability (and the outcome). Your child will learn to see failure in a new light.
3. Demonstrate Unconditional Love
According to UC Berkeley professor Matt Covington, the fear of failure is directly linked to your self-worth, or to the belief that you are valuable as a person.
Kids usually tie their self-worth to what their parents think about them. They might feel their parents won’t love or appreciate them as much if they don’t maintain high grades, superb athletic or artistic performance, perfect behavior, etc.
Naturally, this belief results in a fear of failure.
You can increase your child’s feelings of self-worth by making it clear that you love your child unconditionally, even when he makes mistakes or uses poor judgment.
You probably don’t expect your child to be perfect, but make sure that he knows this too. For example, avoid sending the wrong message by fretting over your child’s homework, correcting all of his wrong answers, or telling him exactly what to write or how to complete an assignment.
This can make your child feel that the learning process is less important to you than his performance and grades. He may worry that you will be disappointed if he fails to reach your high expectations.
Try to ease this worry for your child. Explain that you will always love your child and that you are proud of his effort, persistence, and continued improvement. You can also express pride for the way he responds to mistakes and failure.
4. Conduct the “Worst-Case Scenario” Exercise
Entrepreneur, author, and public speaker Tim Ferriss conducts “Worst-Case Scenario” exercise by using a three-column brainstorm. In the first column, he lists his worst-case scenarios. The second column is a list of ways to lessen the possibility of these scenarios happening. In the third column, he writes how he would recover from each of these scenarios.
Ferriss says, "You come away from that exercise realizing, 'Wow, I was getting extremely anxious and all worked up over something that is completely preventable, reversible, or just not a very big deal.’”
Similarly, if your child is terrified of trying new or challenging things, the “Worst-Case Scenario” exercise may help. Start by grabbing a piece of paper so you can brainstorm with your child.
Ask your child questions like:
- If it all goes wrong, what’s the WORST thing that could happen?
- How likely is it that this will happen?
- What is MORE likely to happen?
- Is there anything you can do to prevent this worst-case scenario?
- What would you do if the worst-case scenario did happen?
The idea is to help your child understand that their fear of failure is ungrounded for the most part. Your child will also realize he can do things to prevent negative outcomes which gives him a sense of power and control.
5. Help Them Focus on the Solution
Can you imagine seeing your child’s homework lying forgotten on the table, and then just leaving it there? That’s exactly what Jessica Lahey did. She’s the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.
When Lahey left the homework on the table, she did so even knowing that she was going to her son’s school later that day. Afterwards, her son made a list of everything he needs to take to school each morning. The list is still on the fridge today.
We don’t necessarily need to be this extreme, but we do need to LET our kids fail. Instead of shielding your kids from problems, help them focus on solutions.
Discuss what actions they took, the consequences of these actions, and how these consequences can be avoided in the future.
Ask questions like:
- What went wrong?
- How can you fix or prevent this next time?
Jessica Lahey says her favorite part of talking to kids about their failures is “helping them in coming up with a strategy.” It’s also her best piece of advice for parents who want to help their kids combat the fear of failure.
Let your child brainstorm solutions, but you can also make suggestions, such as, “Do you think it would help to work with your teacher after school? What if you started your homework a little earlier?”
By using this approach, you’re teaching your child not to respond to failures with frustration, disappointment, or giving up. He’ll learn that failure simply means going back to the drawing board and devising new, better approaches and strategies.
6. Have Conversations About Success and Failure
A new study by French researchers found that children who were told learning can be difficult, and that failing is a natural part of the learning process, actually performed better on tests than kids not given such reassurances.
Depending on your child’s age, you may be able to have an open discussion about success and how it can be difficult to achieve it.
If you aren’t sure how to start the conversation, use these suggestions:
- Talk about success using the “iceberg analogy.” When you see successful people, you only see the tip of the iceberg. You don’t see what’s “under the water,” or what it took for them to achieve that success: failures, rejection, grit, effort, discipline, persistence, etc.
- Explain that failure can be beneficial because it leads to success (when we learn from it and try again). Explain that when you fail, you learn about what works and what doesn’t, you improve, you learn to keep going instead of giving up, etc.
- Explain that a fear of failure will simply keep him from trying and will prevent him from reaching his dreams and achieving his fullest potential. What if Michael Jordan quit basketball when he didn’t make Varsity in high school, instead of using this as motivation to work even harder? Use Famous Failures Kit to demonstrate how famous people failed on their way to success.
By having these open conversations, you can help your child acknowledge and address his fear of failure.
Fear of failure can have a negative impact on kids’ confidence and performance, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. To help your child overcome his fear of failure, try implementing these six strategies:
- Change your attitude about failure by accepting and even celebrating mistakes.
- Emphasize effort instead of ability in your response to both success and failure.
- Demonstrate that you love your child unconditionally.
- Try the “worst-case scenario” exercise to address your child’s worries.
- Allow your child to fail, and help them focus on the solution.
- Have open conversations about success and failure.
As our children learn to embrace mistakes, they’ll realize that giving up is not the answer, and they’ll find the confidence and courage to tackle new challenges with enthusiasm.