How To Help Your Child Overcome Their Fear of Failure
We want our kids to confidently take part in activities that bring them joy and make them an interesting person, but some kids get so paralyzed by the fear of failure that they avoid participating in activities that could bring them happiness.
Lately, I’ve seen too many kids in my private practice that are avoiding life because they are so afraid of the feeling of failure. Luckily, I’ve had some pretty good success with a technique that I call the Stepping Stone Method.
By using the Stepping Stone Method, kids are able to develop their Mastery skills, which is an important element of the Self-Motivation Success Formula that I believe produces happy and successful kids.
Before I give you the step-by-step plan on how to use The Stepping Stone Method, I think you should understand how Mastery Mindset is related to the fear of failure.
The Connection Between a Mastery Mindset and Fear of Failure
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you know that Mastery is one of the key principles to The Self-Motivation Success Formula and that I promote parenting that encourages a mastery mindset.
As a review, Mastery is the drive to participate in an activity – and to improve the performance in this task – simply because we enjoy performing the activity. Kids who have a mastery mindset persevere longer when the task gets difficult, need less outside encouragement from parents to engage in the activity, and derive much more intrinsic rewards from the task.
Kids with a Mastery Mindset aren’t as affected by failure as kids without a Mastery Mindset because they generally view mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. These kids believe that the goal of participating in an activity is to improve on their skills in this activity over time.
It’s important for kids to learn a mastery mindset now because this mindset will help them be happier and more successful as adults. Kids with a mastery mindset mature into adults who seek out careers, hobbies, and relationships for the intrinsic value – and not for baseless, showy reasons.
I’ve pointed out before how important it is for your child to participate in a hobby because it leads to so many great things such as higher self-esteem and increased social interactions, but if your child refuses to participate in a hobby (or any other activity) because they fear failing, then what do you do?
That’s where the Stepping Stone Technique comes in.
The Stepping Stone Technique
The Stepping Stone technique will teach your child not only how to develop mastery in a task, but also how to tolerate failure.
The philosophy of the Stepping Stone Technique is that any kind of mastery is a process that includes multiple steps – and some of these steps just can’t be skipped. Kids who have a fear of failure tend to focus only on the imagined BIG OUTCOME of the task and not on current step – or very next step.
For example, I had a client several years ago who refused to participate in any kind of activity where she wasn’t absolutely sure it would result in a success for her.
If she didn’t think she would win the spelling bee, she would purposefully mess up on her first try.
If she didn’t think she would be as good as the other kids in a dance class, she would refuse to even enter the dance studio building.
And despite having a natural talent for singing, she put up a huge fuss when her parents talked to her about joining the Church youth choir because she envisioned that the whole Church body would make fun of her for her terrible voice (which was untrue – she had a wonderful voice).
Then I taught this client’s parents the Stepping Stone Method and they put it to use right away. Because their daughter had a natural talent and enjoyment for singing, they encouraged her (ok – they bribed her with allowing her to use the family car on the weekends) to consistently attend choirs practice and to participate in all choir performances for the next 3 months.
And after the 3 months, this client was able to overcome her fear of failure. Not only did she thoroughly enjoy singing in the youth choir, but she also became more courageous about trying other activities and tasks as well.
So how did this client have such a huge transformation in such a short amount of time? Let me take you step by step through The Stepping Stone Method.
(Step 1) Start Small. I’ve seen all too many times that when parents start to work with their kids on changing their behavior, they want to begin big, but in reality, it’s best to start small. So, when beginning The Stepping Stone Method, choose one small thing you would like your child to try and focus ONLY on that.
(BONUS TIP: This step works especially well when the activity or task you want them to try is something that they already have an interest in or they are naturally talented at it.)
In the case of the example from above, my client’s parents chose to focus on encouraging my client to join the youth choir because she had a natural interest in singing and had a natural talent for it.
Scientific research tells us that long-term behavior change is more likely to happen when we start small and experience a quick win. Experiencing a quick win allows the child to begin filling their confidence tank, which allows them to have the confidence to try the next scary thing.
(Step 2) Focus Only on The Current Step. Like I mentioned before, many kids with a fear of failure often focus on the ultimate goal – being the winner or the best at the activity – and this paralyzes them from participating in the activity in the current moment.
When this happens, encourage your child to only focus only on completing the current step to the best of their ability.
In the example from above, my teenage client started having an anxiety attack right as her mother reminded her that it was time to go to the first practice. My client told her mother that everyone would laugh at her when she performed with the choir in church and that they would say bad things about her behind her back.
Because I had prepared my client’s mom for this, she stayed calm while her daughter spoke about her anxiety, she didn’t judge her daughter or shame her for feeling these things, and gently reminded her that all she had to do today was to get in the car, get to the Church, and go into the choir room and participate with her friends.
This worked, and my client was still nervous on the way to the Church, but she was able to get through the whole hour of practice successfully.
When my client’s mother asked her how practice went, she replied, “It wasn’t bad like I thought it would be. It was fun.”
My client’s mother repeated this strategy for the next several choir practices and for the next several performances. After about a month, my client didn’t need this encouragement from her mother anymore because she had experienced a month of small wins and she was able to gain enough confidence and experience to know that participating in the youth choir was actually a fun activity.
(Step 3) Focus Only On Intrinsic Rewards, Not on Extrinsic Ones. It super important when using The Stepping Stone Method that you reinforce the intrinsic rewards gained from completing this current step, rather than the extrinsic rewards.
Just as a reminder, intrinsic rewards are those rewards we get that speaks to our inner happiness. The enjoyment we get when working on a task, the pride we get from completing it, or the happiness that our work brings to others are good examples of intrinsic rewards.
Scientific research tells us that people who are successful and happy tend to be driven by internal rewards. People who are internally driven to perform tasks also score higher on scales of perseverance and creativity.
On the other hand, extrinsic rewards are those tangible rewards that we get after performing a task. Examples of extrinsic rewards are earning a paycheck or allowance or getting a bribe for doing a household chore.
Reminding your child of the intrinsic rewards for overcoming a fearful task sets them up for overcoming this fear for other tasks as well. This worked well with the teenage client from our example. When my client’s mother picked my client up after each choir practice, she simply stated to her daughter, “You did it – you must feel great!”
She didn’t say, “See? I told her it wasn’t so bad,” or “I knew you would have fun,” or “I don’t know why you put up such a fuss when it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
I had coached my client’s mother to simply reflect how my client might feel after completing a successful task on her long journey of being a youth choir member. I also reminded her not to be offended if her daughter denied it – just hearing this statement spoken very calmly was very healing for the daughter.
(Step 4) Make Failures/Mistakes a Non-Issue. Kids who fear failure need to reframe how they think about failure. Instead of thinking that failure is a final statement of their abilities or worth as a person, they need to understand that mistakes or failures are just learning opportunities.
I’ve written in the past about how teaching our kids to take smart risks that include learning from failures sets them up for a successful future. If you think about it, every successful person has experienced failures, mistakes, or set, but they did not let these negative events stop them from pursuing their task. Perseverance in spite of failures is what defines successful people.
In order for this step to really make a difference for your child, though, you need to come to terms with how YOU feel about mistakes and failures:
- Does it embarrass you when your child messes up?
- Do you feel like your parenting is being judged when your child makes mistakes?
- Do you unfairly believe that your child’s mistakes are due to their permanent personalities (and cannot be changed)?
If you are as uncomfortable by your child’s mistakes/failures as they are, then you might be unknowingly contributing to their belief that mistakes/failures are horrible experiences that cannot be overcome.
(Step 5) Turn Negative Self-Talk Into Positive Statements. Finally, the last step is equipping your child with the ability on how to turn negative self-talk into positive encouragements.
It’s natural that we sometimes have some negative self-talk, but the faster we can turn that negative self-talk around, the more likely we are to persevere through tough times.
This worked well for my client on the path to participating on her youth choir. When my client spoke about some of her negative self-talk, her mother helped her see the situation in a more positive light. For example, when my client told her mother that the Church members would say bad things about her behind her back about her singing, her mother reminded her that they might say something nice about her like, “I didn’t know CLIENT could sing so well,” or “I’m so glad to see CLIENT with the other kids singing.”
This is definitely a skill that many kids with low self-esteem or fear of failure need to master. For more on learning how to help your child turn negative thoughts into positive ones, check out this previous article.
If you teach this skill to your child now while they are young, then they will be able to tackle any challenge when they are adults.
Take Home Message
I’ve seen way too many kids stop participating i life simply because they are afraid to fail. It hurts my heart every time I talk to a child with this challenge, but I have seen so many kids enjoy life again once they have learned to take scary tasks one step at a time.
My client who started out tackling their fear by participating in the youth choir is in college and is able to start new tasks and be part of new experiences all on her own. It took some work by her parents and some therapy from me, but she was finally able to take on her own confidence about life.
Once she gained confidence from being in the youth choir, she was able to utilize her stronger “courage muscle” by trying new experiences – and then gaining even more confidence after experiencing even more successes. When she failed, or a situation didn’t go as planned, she now had the skill to realize that these were learning experiences, and she was able to turn her negative thoughts into positive ones.
It might not happen overnight, but your child can have this same transformation too by using The Stepping Stone Technique.
Before leaving today, be sure to download the worksheet about how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. By going through this exercise on this worksheet, you’ll be better able to help your child in the moment when they need some positive thinking!
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