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Overcoming The Fear of Failure

Dr Emma Margrett, Head of Radnor Prep, believes that addressing fear of failure will support positive mental health within young people.

It is a well-documented fact that a higher IQ is one of the risk factors which is associated with mental health problems.  Many people suggest that this is related to the fact that high achieving people do not have much experience of failure.  I argue in my research that addressing fear of failure within our children will support positive mental health within the young people who we teach.  I suggest this is achieved by pushing boundaries and introducing opportunities to fail alongside an open dialogue where it is acceptable to make mistakes and learn from them.

So, what can you do as a parent in your everyday life to help your child to make mistakes and to learn from them? 

  1. Let your child make mistakes.  Many of our children are still not afforded the opportunity to grow and make mistakes without having them solved on their behalf.  This is an issue which I feel is growing more significant over time.   Taking the forgotten PE kit as an example: In the case of many of my pupils, their PE kit is brought into school for them by a loving parent before they have even realised that it is missing.  Whilst this generous gesture alleviates the initial upset, it also means that they have missed out on learning the skills of organisation, negotiation and time management that they might have learnt by not having it in school.

  1. Let your child be comfortable with their imperfections.  In our Instagram culture, the fact that many people want to present a perfectly curated image of their lives, rather than the messy reality of the mundane day to day is often discussed.  As a parent, it is easy to want your child to present an image of perfection, to appear successful compared to their peers.  This attempt to help your children to be perceived favourably by others undermines the very opportunity for them to become comfortable with their own imperfection.  Our children are growing up in a world where they are constantly subjected to curated images of others’ lives on social media.  It leads to feelings of missing out and inadequacy from an early age.  Our online behaviour around our children can support them to develop a healthy or unhealthy approach to perfectionism from a very young age. 

  1. Praise effort and not outcome.  Research into Growth Mindset by researchers such as Elliott and Dweck reminds us that if we praise a child’s achievement and focus on a curated idea of perfection, children will be afraid to push boundaries and to lose the crown of achievement.  However, if we praise effort and the process that children engage with rather than the outcome, it has been proven that children will work longer and try harder, and be less paralysed to act due to fear of failure. 

In real terms, what does this look like?  

  • Praise the amount of work and effort that a child puts into learning their spellings or working on their homework rather than result of the test or the grade on their homework. 

  • Give rewards for hard work prior to the outcome of a test rather than waiting for exam or test results to give your child a treat. 

  • Help your child to see that by working hard, you believe that they have done all they can, and that you will be happy with their results whatever they are like.

  1. Future success.  For many high achieving children, their first failure may be to not get into their first choice of university, by which time they have not developed the skills of resilience and grit that allow them to cope with this failure.  By embedding opportunities to fail in your child’s daily life, you are actually helping them to build up coping strategies for the moment when they actually fail when facing a significant challenge that really matters to them.  So, next time your child forgets their PE kit, let them take some responsibility for the situation.  They may thank you in the long run!

Dr Emma Margrett is Head of Prep at Radnor House Sevenoaks, Kent.


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