Parenting: Fear of Failure: A Childhood Epidemic | Psychology Today -
Fear of failure among children in America today is at epidemic proportions. Fear of failure causes children to experience debilitating anxiety before they take a test, compete in a sport, or perform in a recital. It causes them to give less than their best effort, not take risks, and, ultimately, never achieve complete success.
Cause of Fear of Failure
Children get this destructive perspective on failure from American popular culture. Popular culture defines failure as being poor, anonymous, powerless, unpopular, or physically unattractive. On television and in the movies, the losers-nerds, unattractive people, poor athletes-are teased, bullied, and rejected. With this definition of failure, popular culture has created a culture of fear and avoidance of failure. It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and branded as losers for life!
Parents Make Things Worse
Many parents have fallen under American popular culture’s spell of failure as well. They’ve compounded the harm that failure can inflict on children by also connecting their own love and approval with it. The message children get is “I won’t love you if you get bad grades.” They come to see failure as a threat to their personal and social standing.
The Stigma of Failure
There is no greater stigma in American popular culture than being labeled a loser. The expression loser (as the picture at the right illustrates) has become an oft-used and enduring symbol in popular culture. To be called a loser is, to paraphrase a well-known sports cliché, worse than death because you have to live with being a loser.
Children learn that they can avoid failure three ways:
Children don’t engage in an activity in which they fear failure. If children don’t participate, they’re safe from failure. Injury, illness, damaged equipment, forgotten or lost materials, apparent lack of interest or motivation, or just plain refusal to take part are common ways in which children can avoid failure and maintain their personal and social esteem.Children can also avoid failure by failing in an activity, but protect themselves from the failure by having an excuse-“I would have done well, but I just didn’t feel like it” or “I would have done just fine, but the teacher was totally unfair.” Because their failures were not their fault, children can’t be held responsible and popular culture and their parents must continue to accept and love them.Many children don’t have the luxury of not taking part or coming up with excuses, for example, children can’t just not go to school. So another way that children can avoid failure is to get as far away from failure as possible by becoming successful. But children who are driven to avoid failure are stuck in limbo between failure and real success, what I call the “safety zone,” in which the threat of failure is removed, for example, they have a B+ average or finish in the top 10 in their sport, but they are unwilling to intensify their efforts to fully achieve success.
The Value of Failure
Failure is an inevitable-and essential-part of life. Failure can bolster the motivation to overcome the obstacles that caused the failure. It shows children what they did wrong so they can correct the problem in the future. Failure connects children’s actions with consequences which helps them gain ownership of their efforts. Failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, determination, decision making, and problem solving. It helps children respond positively to the frustration and disappointment that they will often experience as they pursue their goals. Failure teaches children humility and appreciation for the opportunities that they’re given.
Of course, too much failure will discourage children. Success is also needed for its ability to bolster motivation, build confidence, reinforce effort, and increase enjoyment. As children pursue their life goals, they must experience a healthy balance of success and failure to gain the most from their efforts.
To protect children from popular culture’s destructive definitions of failure, give them positive definitions of failure. I define failure in ways that encourage children to value rather than fear it.
Failure is not living in accordance with their values. When children cheat, lie, or don’t take responsibility for themselves, then they fail.When children buy into popular culture’s definition of success, for example, being overly concerned with popularity or appearance, then they fail.Failure involves children not giving their best effort, making poor decisions, and not doing what is in their best interest.When children look for the easy way out, are influenced by peer pressure, and act in ways that can hurt them, then they fail.Failure also means treating others poorly and not giving back to their families, communities, and the world as a whole. When children are selfish, uncaring, and disrespectful of the world in which they live, then they fail.
Giving children a definition of failure that takes away the fear liberates them from that fear. It also frees them to strive for success without reservation, to explore, take risks, and vigorously pursue their dreams. Children will know in their hearts that some failure is okay and in no way a negative reflection on themselves as people. Finally, failure will ultimately enable them to achieve success, however they define it.
I handed everyone at the table a rubber band and told them to put it around their wrists like a bracelet.
We slipped it on as we finished dinner and I read these instructions from our dinner time devotional: Every time you grumble or complain, snap your rubber band.
The day before we memorized John 6:43, “Stop grumbling among yourselves.”
Guess who got the first “pop?”
My kids laughed as the first complaint rolled off my tongue just minutes after reading our assignment. I wasn’t even trying to show them an example of what not to do. I didn’t even know I was going to grumble about cleaning up our dinner mess. Because sometimes complaining is just our second nature.
I rubbed my wrist and watched my words.
We all did. Our 24 hour experiment proved to leave our wrists a little tender and our tongues a little more controlled.
We were listening for the bemoaning and bellyaching. We pointed out when we heard each other complain.
The most important thing this experiment did? It made us think before we spoke. It made us more aware.
Grumbling comes too easy. And when we try not to do it, we see how often we whine or complain–about each other, about our situations, about what we have and what we don’t.
When we really get a good look at what’s underneath all those negative words, we find ingratitude.
Because let’s face it: we probably all can find something to gripe about. But when we think before we speak, we can always find something to be thankful for.
Try this simple lesson today (and if rubber bands won’t work for you, keep tally marks on the kitchen calendar or cheerios around a yarn bracelet and break one off with every complaint).
Here’s what a lesson in complaining less does for all of us:
1. It forces us to admit how often we grumble or whine or speak negatively about ourselves or others
2. It causes us to think before we speak
3. It gives us the opportunity to choose gratitude over grumbling.
And while this lesson won’t necessarily rid our homes of complaining (ask me how I know), it will certainly give us something to (think) and talk about.
The Fourth “F” of Trauma
By Ron Huxley, LMFT
When I work with traumatized people, I always keep in mind that they have one of three reactions: Fight, Flight and Freeze. These are primal brain mechanisms that manage threats to the self. Each type of reaction has its intervention but at the core of these interventions is the fourth “F”: Fusion.
Trauma disrupts relationships and self/other organization. At extreme levels it can cause dissociative disorders (what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorders) splitting off internal parts of the self in an effort to survive and function. At milder levels it can cause us to build defenses or social masks that allow us to get through our days despite feelings of pain or loss. Either we are not acting out of our true self. We also have difficulties with others manifesting by poor intimacy, commitment fears, unmanageable anger, feelings of anxiety and depression.
What we want to achieve is fusion. A fusion of self and personality and a fusion of relationships (self with other). This is easy said than done but it is possible. It is not hopeless as we once thought. The real challenge is trying to help others who are in a state of fight, flight or freeze without ourselves going into a similar state. Staying “fused” in our emotions, in the face trauma, is hard! — (via inner-healing)
Adopted and Angry
Q and A with Ron Huxley, LMFT
How do we discipline our 8-year old (adopted) son? He is extremely angry, at times violent and aggressive and has been since about 4 years old. We have seen therapists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, etc. We have tried it all, from medicine to discipline (time out, spanking, withdraw privileges, positive reinforcement, redirection, isolation (in his room), writing sentences, physical activities) and none of it makes any difference to him.
Up until recently, all his anger has been directed only at us, his parents. However, this week he hit a boy with his hat, on the school bus. The consequence is a warning from the principal. Next time he’ll be removed from the bus and no longer allowed to ride it. He is extremely smart, socially immature, and very much likes to be in control - of everything, even us. We need help.
Adopted and angry
Dear Adopted and Angry,
I find that it is helpful to break things down into manageable chunks when overwhelmed by parenting problems. You have very complex case here that involves multiple issues, some of which are workable and others that may not be. Here are the various issues I read in your question: Adoption, child development, aggressive behavior, professional help, behavioral modification, parenting hurts, peer relationships, control issues, and desperation.
I threw that last one in there as semi-jest, semi-truth. You are obviously very frustrated and at the end of your proverbial rope. This permeates everything else you have said and everything you will try to do with your son. This frustration may sabotage your efforts and shorten your ability to fully modify his behavior. You are using some great behavior modification techniques (time out, withdraw privileges, reinforcement, etc.) and I would urge you to continue to use them. But, behavior modification has limitations, especially if you are already experiencing your limitations with your son. In fact, it is possible you are reinforcing him negatively to continue.
The biggest issue you have listed, in my opinion, is adoption. Adopted children come into our families wounded on a spiritual or deeply psychological level. Some people call this the “Mother Wound.” The feeling of being “given up” for adoption, even in the best of circumstances, to the best of families, is a difficult issue for children to cope with. This can be even more difficult if there are other biological children in the home and if there is a dramatic physical difference between children. It is also affected by how adoptive parents handle the whole adoption issue with their adoptive children.
Another related issue with adoptive children is genetics. Parents often don’t know a lot about an adoptive child’s family history and genetic make-up. Mental illness in your child’s family tree may be a big, unknown factor here, and this may not be about behavior, per se, but a genetic problem. If you haven’t already investigated this, I would encourage you to do so. It will help you and the professionals you are working with you to deal with this problem.
Given that you already have a host of professional helpers on your side and you have a good knowledge of behavioral techniques, I would suggest that you focus more on helping your child heal from the spiritual or psychological wounds of adoption. Anger is rarely the real issue in children. What’s under all that rage? What fuels his aggression? How can you answer the main issue of hurt and loss that makes him resistant to change?
What we are really talking about is love. True, unconditional love. The fact that he targets you, his parents, with his rage demonstrates his sense of safety. I know this is confusing but angry/aggressive children usually vent at those they know will not abandon them. And adoptive children are highly sensitive to abandonment. You must reassure, love, and embrace him every time he attacks. This is the only way you can answer his violent test (“Will you give me up, too, or will you keep me no matter how ‘unlovable’ I am?”). Let your behavior modification set the limits on his behavior and let the embrace of your arms be the limits on his spirit).
Ron Huxley, LMFT
17 Hugs A Day
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