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The Importance of Letting Your Child Struggle or Even Fail

​Drew Heckman, Ph.D., Supervising Psychologist and Assistant Training Director, Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health

Amanda McLean, Ph.D., Supervising Psychologist and Assistant Training Director, Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health

For most parents, keeping their children safe is instinctual, so it's only reasonable that this instinct kicks in when a child is experiencing a difficult situation. However, unless the situation is life-threatening, it's often better to let your child navigate the problem on his/her own. Your child will emerge stronger, develop better coping skills, and learn to make good decisions and accept the consequences of poor decisions.

Why Failure Is Important

  • Rescuing creates dependency. Don't "rescue" your child if he/she is scared or nervous about a situation by sheltering your child from those situations or providing excessive reassurance. This can send the message that you don't believe the child is capable of handling the situation, which may make him/her dependent on you in order to cope.
  • Problems lead to problem-solving. For teens, learning to handle difficult situations and decisions is critical. The teen years are a key developmental time when we develop our executive function skills and our human skills, such as our abilities to make decisions, problem-solve, think through problems and regulate emotions. And, we learn not only from success but also from failure. That's why teens need to experience situations where they can make bad decisions, because it's actually how they'll learn to make good decisions.

When to Let Them Struggle or Fail

Instead of rescuing your child by removing the challenge, distress or pain, allow your children to have the experience and be there to support him/her through it.

  • For younger children, DO allow them to handle difficult situations on their own. For example, if they are nervous about going to a practice, discuss with them the tools they have to help calm themselves down; then praise them for their efforts toward appropriate coping.
  • For teens, DO allow them to make choices they will learn from. For example, you might make teens responsible for decisions about schoolwork. Sometimes teens need to get a bad grade or retake a class in order to learn. This teaches them that their behavior has consequences.
  • If you have a teen who just does not care if they fail or get a bad grade, try to figure out what is a problem for your teen. For instance, depending on your teen's behavior, you could regulate privileges:
    • How often they get to hang out with their friends,
    • How much screen time they get
    • How much money they have

Why They Need to Struggle

The goal is to teach your children to overcome obstacles and cope with situations  more independently.

  • Letting younger children struggle through obstacles can teach them how to deal with a difficult person, how to stay calm when they're being punished, or how to perform independent tasks, such as cleaning their room, doing laundry and preparing meals. Children need these experiences to learn.
  • With teens, shielding them from struggle builds a safety net around them — but your child won't have that safety net when he/she goes into adulthood. Depending on your child's temperament, he/she can be like a kid in a candy store, with negative results. Sure, some kids will make good decisions no matter what. That's usually the exception, though, not the rule. Teaching teens to deal with failure and consequences also improves their executive functioning skills — problem-solving, planning and decision-making. They also learn emotion regulation, which we often ​take for granted.

No matter how hard it may be for you as a parent, allow your children to struggle and even to fail. They will eventually learn to accept disappointment, to act appropriately, and control their emotions.​