“If I don’t try, then I can’t fail.” Elizabeth said to me over a Starbucks latte.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She shrugged, “If I try at school and still get bad grades I will feel worse than if I don’t try at all and get bad grades.”
I shook my head, “But how do you know that if you try you won’t get good grades?”
She thought for a few moments, before answering, “It’s not worth the risk.”
We have many parents and teens who write into us that they are having problems at school. Invariably, students are feeling burnt out, over stressed and afraid. When digging further into the stories of these students, we found that the fear of failure is pervasive.
So pervasive in fact, that they do not even want to try at all. For me, this is the scariest attitude of them all. When it comes up I have trouble finding an answer, solution or come back. And I know that parents find it infuriating, but extremely common.
How can we combat and discredit this attitude?
1) Have them try somewhere else.
You might not be able to get them to try in school, but you can help their self-esteem in other areas. Once they feel they can succeed in other areas–sports, arts, friends, they often will begin to try in school.
2) Find areas they are willing to try in.
I recently heard a story about a girl who was a straight A student until she failed a 10th grade math test. That humiliation, disappointment and failure caused her to give up in other areas. This can work the other way as well. Do not let them lump school into one whole project, break it down into subjects. If they are getting a decent grade in one subject, focus on that B not the other F’s. Starting with one good area, can help take the pressure off the other areas so they can begin to try (without worrying about failing) again.
3) Get help.
Many times teens are too afraid to even ask for help. Getting them help–tutors, counselors, peer mentors is a great way to offer advice and support without pressure.
Have you ever asked your teen if they have this attitude towards anything in their life? You should. You would be surprised at their answers. It is an attitude that can be triggered by one single bad grade. Therefore I think it is important for parents and adults to address this attitude with kids before it happens.