Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: “Why Does Fear of Failure Paralyze My Teen with ADHD?”

Is your teen easily discouraged? Do they avoid activities where “success” isn’t guaranteed? These signs typically point to low self-esteem, likely developed due to years of negative messaging — common among individuals with ADHD. Here’s how to help your teen overcome a fear of failure.

Fear of failure concept: man falling in the void from big hole

Q: “I don’t know if it’s related to ADHD or just my teen’s personality, but he simply cannot lose. He has to be perfect in everything, or else he has a meltdown. When he struggles with anything, he often reacts by wishing that he could be someone else, because ‘everyone else gets everything right’ while he’s ‘failing.’ How can I help him overcome his fear of failure?”

A: It’s normal to want to get things right and avoid making mistakes. Many teens with ADHD, however, struggle with losing and failure because they have received so much information and feedback, directly and indirectly, about how they get things wrong.

ADHD and Negative Messaging

It’s estimated that, by age 10, a child with ADHD could receive 20,000 corrective or negative comments. This type of messaging takes a toll on their self-esteem and their beliefs about their personal capabilities.

ADHD and Emotional Dysregulation

There may also be other factors at work here. Many individuals with ADHD struggle with emotional regulation and coping, which can explain why failure is laced with such strong and debilitating emotions for your teen.

Along with emotional dysregulation comes the idea of rejection sensitive dysphoria, a term used to describe the intense and extreme emotional pain linked to feelings of rejection and shame that commonly affect those with ADHD. Add in a still-developing teen brain to the mix, and it’s easy to see why your teen reacts this way to failure.

ADHD and Perfectionism

Fear of failure may also rise from a desire for perfection. If your child wants to be perfect all the time, then this is likely his way of fending off criticism that he may have heard and lived with at large. They may be hypervigilant about their performance and any criticism, real or imagined, constructive or dispiriting, coming his way. They may also struggle with recurrent thoughts: At what point will I mess up? When am I going to disappoint myself?

[Read: You’re Not Perfect, So Stop Trying to Be]

This struggle for perfectionism means that your teen won’t want to engage with an activity he thinks he can’t do “perfectly,” leading to a type of procrastination where he’ll shut down to protect himself.

How to Build Up Self-Confidence and Resiliency In Your Teen with ADHD

For your teen begin to embrace the possibility of failure as a natural part of living and learning and worry less about when it happens, they need to be in an environment that actively celebrates and reminds them of their successes and achievements.

This doesn’t have to happen overnight – and it won’t. Small check-ins and doses of positivity through the week add up over time to increase his confidence.

At the dinner table, for example, ask your child to name three good things that happened to him that day. This will eventually rewire his brain to remember and focus on what he is able to achieve, despite bumps along the way.

[Click to Read: How Can My Teen Stop Spiraling Into Negativity?]

One person I know does “one happy and one crappy” at dinner every night, which I love. Have everyone in the family name one good thing that happened to them that day, and one not-so-good thing. Perhaps you can do two “happies” and a “crappy” to further offset negative messaging.

Placing the positives against the negatives will be a reminder to your teen that it’s not about getting it right all the time, but about persevering and knowing that you sometimes need to fail and trip up – hard – to succeed. This is how we all learn and it doesn’t mean we are failures at all.

Fear of Failure for Teens with ADHD: Next Steps

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