It can be really, really tough to watch your children struggle. As they move into their teens and early twenties, they are making more important decisions for themselves. This is both gratifying and terrifying for parents. What if they fail? But let’s be clear. Failure is not an “if” concept. Everyone has ups and downs, failures and successes. Attempting to avoid failure is not only futile, but it also strips life of so many experiences and lessons. Pro-tip: It’s okay to let your kids fail. Better than “okay,” it can be a valuable teaching moment.

If at First, You Don’t Succeed…

Failure never feels good. It can alter your sense of self and give you pause before trying something else. No parent wants their kids to feel that way. The response, however, doesn’t have to be over-compensation or over-protection. Giving out trophies to everyone is a temporary feel-good moment, but it doesn’t change a single thing about the reality that failure is bound to happen. You may be able to temporarily delay challenges and failure, but that cannot last forever, no matter how hard you try.

And, imagine what you’re implicitly communicating to your child if you continuously shield them from life. “You aren’t capable.” or “You can’t do this.” I’ve heard these very sentiments directly from my adolescent and young adult clients. Additionally, I’ve found that some young people begin to have a distorted view of life. They begin thinking that things should be easy for them. Envision what their life will be like… If you guessed really, really hard, you’re right.

What Your Kids Can Learn From Failure

There is not always a single “right” answer or single way to solve a problem. Enduring failure helps your children develop skills to overcome real-world challenges. In the process, they:

  • Become more resilient
  • Develop grit
  • Learn how to bounce back from failure
  • Foster problem-solving skills
  • Grow more independent
  • Don’t perceive failure as absolute or in black-and-white terms
  • Avoid perfectionism (which is really just a fear of failure)
  • Get the valuable reminder that you love them despite their occasional failures

When to Step Aside and Give Them Space and When to NOT Let Them Fail

School Work

Some young people will try to skate by doing minimal work. Until they learn — firsthand — that this strategy will result in poor grades, they will push the envelope. Give them room to feel the consequences of this lesson. However, recognize that there are times when the stakes are higher. It might involve repeating course work or having to attend summer school. In some cases, it could seriously impact their future (e.g., not getting the grades needed to apply for the college of their choice). Decide ahead of time what stakes are too high in their academics for you to not intervene.

Friends and Relationships

For the most part, as a parent, you can’t control who your teen or 20-something is hanging out with or dating. There will probably be many times that you want to intervene to help make their social lives a little easier. After all, you have a lifetime of failed and successful relationships to draw wisdom from. However, your child is more likely to learn the lesson from lived experience versus advice from you. Unless you see some major red flags that indicate danger, try to stay on the sidelines.

Risky Business

Teens and emerging adults love to push their limits. It might be skateboarding or junk food or lack of sleep. As much as you want to intervene, you do run the risk of appearing too strict about low-risk behaviors. Let them learn their own lessons about how poor sleep affects their ability to function or what their limits are in their “extreme” sport of choice.

However, you can and must stay fully engaged regarding behaviors that carry high-risk, sometimes irreversible consequences. For example:

  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Risky sexual activity
  • Criminal behavior
  • Interacting with groups that provoke hate and violence

When You Can’t Tell the Difference

Your natural instinct as a parent is to nurture and protect. This is crucial to your child’s development. At times, though, it can cloud your perception as to when to intervene. As your teen or twenty-something spreads their wings, there is no shame in seeking out guidance for yourself, too. Seeing a therapist is an ideal way to parse out when and how your personal issues shape your parenting style.

I can help serve as a guide as you manage and navigate this challenging new chapter of you and your child’s lives. Please read more about parenting an emerging adult and contact me soon for a free 20-minute consultation.