Ask the Experts

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

“The fear of failure is a common obstacle for teens with ADHD. Developing smart strategies, like breaking down tasks into small, manageable steps and enlisting an ADHD coach, can help.”

OCD is easily confused with ADHD due to overlapping behavioral symptoms. For example, a child may seem inattentive because he has trouble completing schoolwork; however, the problem may actually stem from the child being so fearful of making a mistake that he is unable to move on to the next task. Determining the root of behavior problems is the key to a proper diagnosis.

Q: “Why does the fear of failure keep my teenage son with ADHD from getting his work done?” — NebraskaMom

Hi NebraskaMom:

The fear of underperforming or failing is a very common obstacle for many teens, especially those with executive functioning challenges or ADHD. Due to the sheer nature of ADHD, the ability to complete tasks and assignments is daunting or overwhelming. Understanding the intricate interplay between ADHD and your son’s fear is essential to helping him navigate his academic journey.

Imagine a busy train station where trains full of “concentration” are meant to depart on time. But the train station is overflowing with thoughts, ideas, impulses, etc. You get it. For those with ADHD, the “concentration” trains are often derailed or delayed due to all those distractions. In other words, your son’s attention is being pulled between focus and distractibility.

[Free Resource: Turn Your Teen’s Apathy Into Engagement]

Now add in the fear of failure or doing poorly, and you have another hurdle on the tracks. This fear acts like an unseen force that derails the concentration train before it can even gain momentum. It can bring anxiety, self-doubt, and a desire to avoid the task at all costs. In essence, your son’s fear is a powerful conductor, redirecting his attention away from his work.

Now, the fear of failure isn’t solely rooted in what he has to do but also in the potential consequences that doing poorly or failing might bring. I guess that he frequently hears criticism or negative feedback. By age 10, a child with ADHD will hear 20,000 corrective comments, according to Michael S. Jellinek, M.D. 1 This barrage of judgment, coupled with his internal pressure, can amplify his fear to the point that it shuts him down. Completely.

Remember, the ADHD brain is wired differently, making it more challenging to organize thoughts, prioritize tasks, and manage time efficiently. Trust me when I say these difficulties get heavy and weigh kids down, leading to a vicious cycle of avoidance and procrastination. As the deadlines loom, the fear of not measuring up increases, and the thought of trying to tackle the task becomes overwhelming.

So, how can you help your son?

Overcoming Fear of Failure

Create a nurturing and understanding environment. It might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating: Open communication and validating your son’s feelings are essential.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD? Symptom Test for Kids]

Help him develop smart strategies, such as breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Consider enlisting professional help, such as an ADHD coach, who can teach him tools and techniques for planning, studying, managing time, and staying organized.

Involve his teachers and the school. Collaborate to create accommodations or modifications that can alleviate some of his pressures. If he doesn’t already have one in place, consider building a 504 Plan or IEP (Individual Education Program). Establishing a support network will empower your son to confront his fears and build resiliency.

And, most importantly, focus on the progress rather than the result! Celebrate even the smallest wins!

Good luck!

Fear of Failure: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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1Jellinek, M.S., (2010) Dont Let ADHD Crush Children’s Self-Esteem. Clinical Psychiatry News. Volume 38, Issue 5, Page 12.