Fail. It’s the other four-letter ‘F’ word, and one that is as emotionally arousing and offensive as the swear word. Seeing the word “fail”, or the big red “F” on top of a test or exam paper can raise the heart rate, blood pressure, and cause lightheadedness, dizziness, eating, and even gut-clenching pain.
There’s a proper term — atychiphobia — that refers to an irrational and persistent fear of failing. This could be related to mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. For people who tend towards perfectionism, even a single instance of failure can be psychologically painful, making them feel as if they have gone from hero to zero. The nagging fear that they will never live up to the unrealistically high standards in their mind may even paralyse their future progress.
Grooming Success Zombies
In his 2014 article ‘Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League’, writer William Deresiewicz contends that top colleges are churning out zombies who have sleepwalked their way through education. These are high achievers, the cream of the crop, kids who have never experienced anything but success.
“The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error,” he wrote.
Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion,” Deresiewicz described.
This sounds extreme, but there’s probably a kernel of truth in it, especially in relation to children in Singapore. Expectations are high, competition is tough, and social media can magnify a small slip into an epic fail. You may have heard of kids who break down if they do not get full scores on their assignments. For them, failure is inconceivable.
Using Failure to Grow
But failure is often a conduit for growth. For children, the process of overcoming these failures helps build the mental and emotional fortitude that they will need to navigate real life in adulthood. Along the way they also develop much-needed mindsets of grit, persistence, and perseverance, as well as a healthy dose of confidence and self-esteem. Which is what we all want for our children, isn’t it?
(See also: Grow Your Child’s Sense of Grit)
Dr Alex Kuznetsov is the founder of 5 Steps Academy, an international school in Singapore with a strong focus on Maths. Students here have reportedly completed international examinations at comparatively young ages, thanks to its proprietary 5 Steps System™. “Kids are taught to go out of their comfort zone with no fear of failure, comfortably make mistakes and learn from them as the fastest way to master the curriculum. That’s how real life works so the school and home become an effective launch pad to seize opportunities for the future,” the father of five explains. He tells us how parents can help children manage their fear of failure.
What causes children to develop a fear of failure?
“There is apparently a genetic predisposition to the fear of failure. As such, some kids are more vulnerable to painful experiences from birth than others due to their circumstances. To an extent, the fear of failure is normal and performs an important role in maintaining goal driven activities. However, intensive traumatic experiences, especially repetitive ones, can develop anxiety to the extent where children drop out from activities they enjoyed before, refuse to go to school, or even avoid meeting friends.
While it’s obvious that your self-confidence can be damaged by a fiasco, there’s a catch. Failure is a natural experience almost every child will perceive as normal if it’s not too hurtful. Meanwhile, the major and much more common failure-aggravating factor is social rejection. You failed and mummy doesn’t love you anymore. Your friends are laughing at you and don’t want to play with you anymore. It is this fear of rejection that goes hand in hand with the fear of failure, and creates real problems.
What will happen with a child when they hear something like:
- “Look at her, she cannot solve this simple question!
- Everyone understands already and you still don’t know what to do!”
- “You spilt the soup, you are useless!”
Wrong teaching, humiliating comments from peers, teachers, and parents, lack of love and support — all these are common drivers of fear of failure.
Is the fear of failure more prevalent in girls or boys?
While fear of failure is equally common in boys and girls, the social triggers are gender specific. Boys are more vulnerable to the fear of being publicly unable to achieve their goals or being cowardly in the eyes of their peers. Girls tend to be more concerned about their look, body, skin, hair and everything that may potentially cause rejection by appearance.
Parents should also take extra care during three development periods when kids are the most susceptible to rejection and hence, in higher risk of developing the fear of failure:
Infants (6 to 18 months old)
If the caregiver prompts proximity-seeking behaviours and grants access to things to try and explore, the infant develops a secure organisation. Otherwise, an avoidant organisation develops with a strong “fear-of-failure” component. So the child’s basic trust to the world is at stake at this development stage. The emotional void left by the lack of trust is then filled by fear and anxiety.
Preschoolers enter a new life with adults who can powerfully shape their confidence — teachers. Supportive teachers who constantly convey one simple message — “you can!” — through various phrases and in various contexts are able to nurture a strong and self-confident personality in the child. In contrast, teachers who scold and humiliate children can leave deep scars on their hearts. Unfortunately, the latter happens everyday, and this is one of the main reasons why so many people are driven not by goals or curiosity, but fear.
Teenagers’ emotional organisations are built against the backdrop of hormonal changes and extreme sensitivity to peer feedback. A child can be labelled as a loser in a blink of an eye, by a single word from a classmate. Unfortunately, emotional support, even from loving parents, rarely helps; the teenager needs reassurance from outside the immediate family.
This support can come from a teacher, trainer, neighbour or any other adult the child respects. For example, if a teacher is respected by a teenager who finds him/herself in trouble, the teacher’s mentorship can be an anchor in the student’s emotional storm. What the parent (naturally losing authority at this stage) cannot do anymore, the teacher can, especially when it comes to helping with the child’s self-confidence.
At what point does this become a problem?
Making mistakes becomes a problem when a child’s parent, teacher or friend emphasises so, especially in an offensive way, be it through scolding or punishment. When the child perceives mistakes as enemies, not as elements of learning, and not as valuable feedback on their educational journey, we face a huge problem which is difficult (but not impossible) to correct.
How can parents tell when their child has a fear of failure?
When the child loses curiosity, stops trying, and becomes so frustrated that they drop out from learning activities with even minor mistakes or complications. What is the use of trying if it’s almost impossible to avoid mistakes, and you’ll be punished in one way or another? The goal doesn’t matter anymore, postponed gratification doesn’t work. What matters for the child is to not make a mistake in order to avoid punishment. Better not to try at all.
What can parents do to help their children overcome their fear of failure?
The key idea is to make failure impossible. Simply put, no mistake is a failure. Rather, it is a valuable resource to understand what to focus on. Mistakes along the way are just prompts on what needs to be explained and worked on.
Way too often, parents or educators point out what is wrong, but do not show what is right. Humans are great imitators. We learn by copying the ways other people do, say, and even think. So show, don’t tell. Establish and maintain emotional bonds and let children experience small wins. Making learning fun, with no fear of failure, with no unhealthy comparison, and celebrating small wins are crucial for fostering a child’s self-confidence and motivation to learn.”