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December 11, 2020

Fear of Failure: Teen Guidance

But what if I, what if I trip? 

What if I, what if I fall? 

Then am I the monster? 

Just let me know.

In Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes’ song “Monster,” the two singers struggle with the expectations of others and their fear of falling short of those expectations. When they fail, they’re left to wonder if their failure makes them a monster. And your teen may be wondering the same thing. 

Teens are constantly trying to live up to their parents’ standards, society’s standards, and their own standards. While it’s good for them to strive to be their best, it can be devastating when they feel they’ve failed to meet those standards. 

Failure can be a helpful tool for self-improvement and perseverance. But If we’re not careful, failure can guide us into crippling shame to the point that we believe we’re monsters who aren’t worthy, or capable of success. So, let’s dive into what it means to be successful for Gen Z, and how we can help our teens cope when they don’t succeed. 

How Gen Z views failure 

“As Gen Z is often known as the ‘post-truth’ generation, or one which seeks to define its own morality, it’s no surprise that Gen Zers are also seeking to redefine some of America’s most basic values, including success. Subsequently, Gen Zers may pursue a less conventional path for the sake of personal happiness and fulfillment.” Axis’ Parent’s Guide to Failure

Pressures like school performance, life after graduation, social life, and much more cloud our teens’ lives daily. These pressures hit the hardest when they’re connected with their sense of identity or self-worth. In The Life of the Beloved, Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen said we tend to believe three primary lies about our identity:

  1. I am what I do.
  2. I am what other people say about me.
  3. I am what I have.

When was the last time you failed to do something, failed someone you loved, or failed to get something you wanted? Happens all the time, right? Failure is an inevitable part of life. And if we put too much emphasis on what we have, what we do, or what others say about us, we’ll get caught up in a whirlwind of negative emotions and thoughts when we discover that these things don’t fulfill us. Wouldn’t it be better to know that when you lose a soccer game or couldn’t afford that fancy car, that you’re just as loved and valued as you were before? 

Our teens need this assurance. They need to know that these things don’t define them and that they’re loved and appreciated even when they don’t feel like they’re enough. In fact, failure has the potential to make us stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a cliché for a reason. Learning to navigate through failure is one of the most valuable skills our kids can learn, giving them a spirit of perseverance for any storm. 

Practical ways to deal with failure

“The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of the world.” —Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure

We may be tempted to shield and protect our kids from failure because we want nothing but the best for them. But, really, there is beauty and hope that can come from failure that’s often clouded by our disappointments. Failure can make our kids stronger and braver against their hardships, preparing them to keep hope in an often tough and discouraging world. So, here are some ways that you can work through the crushing nature of failure with your teen. 

    • Provide a safe space. Failure can cause a lot of sadness and frustration. Allow your teen to feel those emotions. Ignoring negative feelings can only allow them to grow and fester, so encourage your kid to bravely face even their scariest feelings. Because when they do, they take the first step to healing.  
  • Respond graciously. When we respond to their failure negatively, our teens may take our response personally and think that we’re disappointed in them. This disappointment can make our teens feel even more devastated and alone than before. That’s why our response is so crucial. We need to be a constant source of love and grace, showing them that we are proud to be their parents no matter how they may fail or succeed.
  • Don’t over-emphasize success. As Jessica Lahley urges in the quote above, failures can be more productive and fulfilling than successes. It’s through the failures that we can learn the most important lessons and grow. So, when we put too much weight on succeeding, our teens are often robbed of the benefits that come with their failures. 
  • Find the silver lining. What are some things your teen is succeeding in or looking forward to? Yes, they failed at something, but what did they do well in the situation? Failure can overwhelm us and trap us in a negative mindset. But there is hope, even in the smallest things. Help your teen see the hope in their situation. 
  • Make a plan. Often, the biggest struggle is knowing how to navigate through failure. Try asking questions like, “What can I learn from this?” “How can I grow from this experience?” “What practical steps can I take to move forward?” Growth-oriented questions can help your teen fight against the stagnant feeling of shame and disappointment they may be having. Help them see that there’s a way out of their disappointments. 
  • Tell them you love them. It’s easy to forget that you’re not defined by your shortcomings. Before you end the conversation, let them know that you love them, and that you’re there for them, no matter what happens. 

Where does your worth come from?

And what if I, what if I sin? 

And what if I, what if I break? 

Then am I the monster? 

Just let me know.

Much like Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, our teens want to know that when they sin, break under pressure, or make mistakes, that we don’t view them as monsters. It’s our job to communicate the unconditional love of Jesus, and make sure our teens know their worth isn’t grounded in what they do or fail to do. In fact, Jesus gives us the ultimate hope in failure. He died so that our failure to be sinless wouldn’t condemn or define us. 

It’s time to face the fear of failure head-on and teach our kids how to confront failure with courage and confidence. We encourage you to open this conversation with your kid, and to help reframe their view of failure. Failure doesn’t have to be a disappointing end for our teens. It can be an opportunity to learn and begin something new. 

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