This reply was originally posted by user parentcoachjoyce in ADDitude’s now-retired community.
I understand the concern about failure causing a dive in self esteem, but I think self esteem is in part built by proving to yourself that you can do hard things; maybe failing the first time doesn’t feel great, but if after putting in effort and learning from mistakes you succeed, it feels pretty good. What can make a huge difference is the messages he tells himself after he fails (which you can help with). Another thing to consider is that when you have to bounce back from consequences, it helps build resilience, which is something a lot of kids lack but is so important in adulthood. When parents shield kids from failure, they can’t build resilience.
I think a teen’s self esteem could also suffer just as much if his/her parents are doing a lot of things for them and bailing them out of things (not that you do this, just an example.) I have talked to many kids who told me they felt like a “loser” because their parents were coming to school collecting all their work, constantly checking up on them, emailing teachers, etc. Many of them started rebelling and getting lazy because they didn’t have to worry; they knew that if they slacked off mom or dad would step in.
I think there is a benefit to allowing kids to “fail” while still “in the shallow end” but this can be done in a very controlled environment. For example, you let him forget his lunch/gym clothes, etc. and don’t bring it to school, but you don’t let him run into the street. One lesson is harmless, the other is not. As far as how to handle failure, if he fails an assignment and then has to stay in during recess or do summer school or some other type of school-related consequence, you could ask him, “what do you think you need to do differently next time to do better on that assignment?” Then it can be a very valuable lesson and he can then prove to himself he can do it (a big boost to self esteem). The other good thing about allowing consequences to happen is that then the consequences are the bad guy, not you. So you say, “I trust you will do well on your midterms. Let me know if you need any help.” Then when he fails and has a consequence, you can respond with empathy and just say, “wow, son, that really sucks. I feel so bad for you. What do you think you’ll do differently next time?”. (You can also have rewards at home that he is working toward, like “I’m happy to provide a cell phone to anyone who gets good grades”. You then let him be involved in a discussion about what he considers “good grades”; something you can agree with. And then, he knows exactly what he is working toward and is not surprised (or mad at you) when he doesn’t achieve it and can’t get the reward. You never say “I told you so”; you just say, “wow, that’s sad. Hopefully next time you’ll do it! I believe you can! Let me know what I can do to help you!”
Hope this helps!
Parenting coach, licensed school counselor, mom of adult son with ADHD