How to Help Your Child To Overcome Their Fear of Failure

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

Fear is a normal part of life. In fact, it helps to keep us safe. 

Children will learn about and experience fear during their development. It’s just a part of life.

But what if fear is having a negative impact on your child?

Fear of failure can be a very destructive perspective, especially when it comes to a child’s educational and social development. 

As parents, there’s lots you can do to support your child through a consistent approach with patience and understanding.

So, let’s take a look at the signs of a child’s fear of failure and how you can help them to overcome their fear.

9 year old boy leaning on his school desk looking thoughtful

Childhood Fear of Failure: Why Should We Take Action As Parents?

  • Fear might hold your child back from trying things out in case they ‘fail’.
  • Or it might interfere with their daily life.
  • Fear may stop them from grasping opportunities.
  • A child’s fear of failure can impact their development.
  • Relationships can be affected.

Signs that Your Child Has a Fear of Failure

Anyone can experience emotions around a fear of failure – it’s a natural response to uncertainty or perceived threats.

How do you know if your child has a fear of failure? Well, the best way is to observe their behaviour and listen to your child’s feelings.

Is your child….

  • Avoiding new challenges rather than embracing them?
  • Reticent about trying new things for the first time (such as a new dance class, or joining a sport’s team)?
  • Are they showing signs of some anxiety?
  • Using negative self-talk, often criticising themselves?
  • Seeking reassurance or validation from others in an attempt to lessen the uncomfortable feeling of a fear of failure?
  • Worrying excessively about events, exams or tasks?

We must listen to children’s fears. They feel real to them and we need to help them understand what fear is and why they are experiencing it.

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Why Might Your Child Have a Fear of Failure?

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons.

  • It can be a common trait in children who have perfectionist tendencies.  One of the biggest fears is making mistakes or falling short of the high expectations they have of themselves.
  • If a child has previous negative experiences around failure (such as parental or peer criticism), the threat of failure can become really consuming.
  • If your child has low self-Esteem and doubt their abilities, perceived ‘failure’ at something can feel like the end of the world.
  • In the worst-case scenario, children who have experienced trauma such as bullying, or significant life changes may freeze with fear when any triggering situation arises where they have been undermined before.

Cultural Issues: Child Fear of Failure

Cultural issues can really influence a child’s fear of failure.  Attitudes and perceptions are often influenced by religious, societal and popular culture.

In cultures where there is a pervasive view that ‘we can achieve anything if we just work hard enough’, the fear of failure can be prevalent as people become worried about showing personal inadequacies or capability.

In some cultures, high achievement is a big part of the narrative of a child’s learning. 

With any sign of failure, they are expected to work harder and longer. There is a greater stigma attached to failure in certain cultures.

With popular culture comes the complexities around social and media messages.

The main problem is that this can put pressure on children and young people to conform and meet expectations, often with no room for making mistakes.

7 year old girl looking nervous in a swimming pool

How to Help Your Child With fear of Failure

1. Help Your Child See That Failure is a Good Thing

    ‘Failure’ can be a positive experience for your child. They can learn important life skills and although it might feel like the hard way to learn, real success can ultimately come from it. 

    How can you help your child see failure in a positive light:

    • Failure can build strong characteristics and positive relationships
    • It can develop innovation, problem solving skills and creativeness
    • Facing fear can help to fear less and go towards taking risks rather than avoiding them
    • Failure can often set a pathway to success
    a nine year old boy taking part in a drama class and looking nervous

    2. Remove the Shame Associated With Failure

    A great way to address shame associated with your child’s fear with failure is to normalise failure.  You can do this by talking about feelings of failure openly.

    Show and tell them that it is a normal part of life and an opportunity for learning and growth.

    Teaching young people how to practice self-compassion when they experience failure is crucial.

    Challenge negative thoughts by encouraging problem solving and focussing on positive self talk. 

    This will help them to let go and forgive themselves.

    3. Help your Child Experience More Failure

    This may seem counterintuitive, but you’ve probably already done this!  Teaching your child about the possibility of failure is a life lesson and can support their growth and development.

    Think about board games they’ve played & lost at.  They were probably disappointed but….

    Did they want to try again?

    Did they give up?

    How did you respond?

    You can celebrate mistakes (and maybe laugh about wrong answers together). 

    Mistakes show that your child has taken a first step in trying new things and taking risks which in turn can help build resilience.

    A great way to help your child build a healthy relationship with failure is to provide opportunities for them to try new activities or tasks that might be out of their comfort zone.

    It’s here that they can learn to stretch and push themselves and find out about trusting themselves too.

    a teenage girl playing wheelchair basketball

    4. Help Your Child Reflect on Failure and Identify How They Have Developed

    Showing your child how to reflect on failure and identifying a healthy balance of success is a fantastic teachable moment.

    It’s great to celebrate when they have achieved good grades, but it is equally important to celebrate when they put in their best effort, whatever the outcome.

    With a growth mindset your child’s fear of failure can be challenged through the recognition that failures and mistakes are valuable learning experiences.

    5. Consider How You Manage Your Own Failures

    What message could we give children when we make a mistake ourselves?

    As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I’m a work in progress but the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt is to be honest with myself and others.  Here are some strategies I find work.

    • Be honest and own your mistakes and failures.
    • Show compassion towards yourself.
    • Understand your failures, why they happened and what you could do differently next time (reflecting).
    • Use positive self-language. Your child will hear and see how you speak to and treat yourself after a failure.
    • Have positive coping strategies when things go wrong.
    • Avoid blame – of yourself or others. Instead, seek to understand and learn.

    Perhaps you could spend time exploring their definition of failure and share your own perspective at the dinner table. 

    Think of some common ways you could address their definition further.  How about watching a sports event together and see how teams cope with winning and losing.

    6. Look at Role Models and How They Manage Failure

    Part of the reason why people are successful in life (whatever pathway they choose) is because they have faced adversity, hurdles, failures and made mistakes.

    Successful people tend to have developed resilience and a positive mindset.  They are able to look beyond failures and figure out ways to work with or around them to get to their goals.

    Check out Sir James Dyson – interviewed by Fast Company (May 2007), Dyson asserted the importance of failure in our lives.

    “I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one!”

    Another good role model of someone who succeeded through failure is Thomas Edison, renowned American inventory and businessman. He invented the practical electric light bulb, but only after many failures and setbacks, over 10,000 in fact.

    He and Sir James Dyson are perfect examples of resilience, perseverance and a growth mindset which enabled them to gain insight into what didn’t work, which led them ever closer to what did.

    a thirteen year old boy doing tricks on a skateboard

    Fear of Failure in Children: Case Example (Emily age 16)

    At 16, Emily stood out on her high school volleyball team, not just for her skill, but for the intense pressure she put on herself.

    From a young age, Emily had been a perfectionist, always striving to meet not only the high expectations she set for herself but also what she perceived to be the expectations of her parents, coaches, and teammates.

    This drive for perfection had a shadow side: a profound fear of failure that loomed over her every move on the court.

    This fear showed itself in various ways. Emily would become visibly tense during critical points in a game. Her serves would lose their usual power, and her spikes would miss their mark.

    Her teammates noticed that Emily wasn’t her usual, upbeat self anymore. She started to keep to herself more, worried that they might be talking about her mistakes.

    Coach Thompson, who had been coaching for a long time, saw what was happening with Emily. She knew Emily was struggling not just with volleyball but with feeling good about herself.

    Coach Thompson decided to help. She talked with Emily, letting her know it was okay to be scared and make mistakes. They found out that Emily was really worried about letting everyone down and thought that messing up meant she wasn’t good enough.

    To help Emily, Coach Thompson taught her some new ways to think and stay calm during games.

    They talked about what they could learn if they didn’t win, and how it can be quite limiting to win every time, because you learn less. They also discussed that the rest of the team knew Emily always tried her absolute best, and even if she messed up in some small way, they wouldn’t hold it against her.

    Coach Thompson also told Emily some stories about her own failures when she was younger. She explained that without failure she would have been over-confident and would have lacked the competitive edge to keep going when things got tough.

    This helped Emily start to feel better about playing and not so scared of messing up.

    By the end of the season, Emily was playing better again because she was so much more relaxed.

    She learned that being scared is part of playing sports, but it doesn’t have to stop you from trying your best.

    happy players from a girls' volleyball team

    Child Fear of Failure: Summary

    Supporting your child’s fear of failure requires a healthy balance of success and setbacks. 

    Success is important and winning can be fulfilling but of equal importance is to understand what failure is and that it is a normal part of every human beings life.

    Parents, teachers and coaches can make a huge difference to a child’s view of themselves, and positively influence their development when they support them in an environment which recognises and accepts success and failure.

    A growth mindset will support the idea of effort over outcome and help to build resilience and confidence in a child. 

    Along with positive reinforcement, understanding and patience, you can make a significant contribution in teaching your child the benefits of embracing failure as an opportunity for growth and learning.

    Related Articles

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    Fight or Flight Worksheet: Free PDF and Guide

    Worry Box: The Perfect Tool to Help Kids With Anxiety

    Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

    Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

    Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

    parent tips for positive mental health facebook group