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The Importance of Letting Your Teen Fail

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

The teen years are a key developmental time. It's when we develop our executive function skills and our human skills, such as our abilities to make decisions, problem-solve, think through something, and regulate our emotions.

We learn from success, but we also learn from failure. So, we need to let teens experience situations where they can make bad decisions, because it's actually how they'll learn to make good decisions.

Tips for Letting Teens Struggle

When most adults fail, they admit they've failed and work to overcome it or prevent it from occurring again. If you don't let teens fail or struggle, if you are always there to rescue them, then the result could be an entitled adult who will always rely on ​you and can't accept failure or its consequences.

  • Don't provide teens with a safety net. They won't have that safety net when they go to college, and they can be like a kid in a candy store, with negative results. Although some kids will make good decisions no matter what, that's usually the exception, not the rule. That's why teens need to have experiences of being in situations where they may make the wrong decision and know the consequences for that bad decision. If your teen slows down and thinks, "If I'm late for curfew, I'm going to lose my cellphone," then even if he/she chooses to be late for curfew, he/she has done so understanding that there will be a negative consequence. And that understanding is improvement.
  • Teach teens to deal with failure and consequences. This improves their executive functioning skills — problem-solving, planning and decision-making. They also learn emotion regulation, which we often take for granted. If you're always there to make things perfect for your teens, then when something beyond your control goes wrong, they will likely blame you. Instead, by allowing teens to struggle and even to sometimes fail, you'll raise someone who can be disappointed yet still act appropriately and regulate their emotions.

When to Let Teens Fail

Here are some areas where you might allow your teens to make their own choices and deal with the consequences of bad decisions:

  • Socially. Teens have opportunities to make bad decisions with peers all ​​the time.  As a parent, you naturally want to prevent your teens from ever doing something stupid. So, you may hesitate to allow your teen to go out with friends if he/she has gotten in trouble in the past. Or, you may restrict cellphone use if he/she has used the phone improperly. But you should give teens the opportunity to make their own choices.
  • Schoolwork. Parents see the value in school, so they may end up doing a lot of the work for their kids to help them succeed. But sometimes teens need to have the experience of having to retake a class or going to school early to work and get that grade back up to learn that their behavior has consequences. So, if they decide not to do their homework on Thursday night, they might be spending a couple of hours doing homework on Saturday.

Your teen will undoubtedly make a poor decision at some time or another — you can't control that. However, you can balance your teen's poor decision-making by controlling his/her access to privileges.

  • If your teen makes a poor decision, then give a negative consequence for it. But don't take away the activity or device forever; give it back and allow him/her to experience doing something dumb and then learning to control his/her impulses.

  • Sometimes, you may have a teen who just does not care if they fail. In that case, try to figure out what is a problem for your teen. For instance, depending on your teen's behavior, you could issue consequences that limit the things and activities your teen finds important:
    • How often they get to hang out with their friends
    • How much screen time they get
    • How much money they have