What Your Kid Tells Me About Failure

by Lisa Miller

Disclaimer: this is not a warm and fuzzy blog post. It’s got some hard truths in it. Read with caution, and maybe a glass of wine.

Students do well when they can.

Think about it. It's human nature to want to be successful. It feels good! 

In the 20 years I've been working with and interviewing adolescents, not a single one has ever shared with me that it feels good to fail. On the contrary, they want to do well in school and in life. They want you, their adults, to be proud of them. 

Students do well when they have the support they need, and when there are clear expectations and boundaries. 

If your student is failing, it's possible you are failing at your job as a parent. Ouch!

I know this sounds harsh. And there are likely other factors involved. But if this resonates, be brave, and read on.

You may feel like you are doing the best you can. You may be trying all the things! One thing I know for sure - the indignation and defensiveness you might be feeling right now is how your kid feels. Often. I'm not going to sugar-coat this. Instead, I want you to ask yourself the following questions and be brutally honest with your responses:

  • Have you given your kid the support they need to navigate adolescence (regular time with you, tutoring, therapy, coaching, etc)?*

  • Have you established shared goals and expectations with them? 

  • Have you set clear boundaries and do you follow through when they cross them?

  • Are you setting your kid up for success?

If you don't know, or the answer is no, it's likely you are one of the reasons your kid isn't doing better. And it's likely you spend a lot of time berating your child for their (read, your) failures. As the adult in the room, it's your responsibility to create an environment where your kid can thrive. 

Okay, so you’re here because you want to do better and you're hungry for information. The good news is you can do better (just like your kiddo). Let's start by shifting your thinking.

Shift #1: Your negative feedback is not helpful. 

It doesn't feel good to get regular, negative feedback. Your kids tell me how hard it is to disappoint you; how demoralized they feel by the endless loop of parental dissatisfaction; how they start to believe they can't succeed, no matter how hard they try. 

Let's be honest, we adults could use some reminders on how to be less critical and judgmental when it comes to our kids' shortcomings. We are overachievers at pointing out their failings and making them feel bad. We aren’t so accomplished at the positive reinforcement part.

Have you ever said these words?

What were you thinking?

What is wrong with you?

Why do you always...?

How come you never...?

It's frustrating and exhausting when you...

I need a break. You...

I know I have; we all feel this way at times. Maybe more often than we'd like. But, you need to know that when you say these words, here's what your kid hears:

You're no good. 

Hard stop.

Take a moment to think about this. I know that’s not what you mean. Of course you don’t think your child is no good. Which leads us to...

Shift #2: Your main priority should be to emotionally connect with your kid.

Ready to rewrite the script? Ready to abandon the broken record of shame? Here are some things to try:

Don't start conversations with your kid with negative feedback. I know, it's hard to overlook certain things (a messy room, undone chores, missing homework, etc.), but your emotional connection will blossom when you focus on the positive. Your kid needs you to see the efforts they are making. Do that first and often. 

Try leading with:

I noticed that you...

Thank you for...

I am feeling really good about your/when you...

I see that you made an effort to...

Tell me about...

Address the other stuff in a family meeting, or try saying, I have a few things I'd like to connect about that require you to change your behavior. When are you available to talk about it?

Shift #3: Kids do better when they know the rules. 

Your children confide in me that they want boundaries to push up against--it makes them feel safe and loved. They don't need you to be the "cool parent." They need you to be in charge--because their world is topsy-turvy and they need to know that someone is steering the ship.

You may think you have set clear rules, and perhaps you have. The best way to determine if this is the case is to ask your kids:

Do you know what our family rules are around:

-school (attendance, effort, grades, etc.)

-home (chores, personal hygiene, sleep, etc.)

-technology (iEverything, screen time, phone curfew, etc.)

-behavior (sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll)

If your child can’t articulate the rules with accuracy and in a way that reflects your family’s values, you haven’t done a good job of conveying them.

It’s okay! Fret not! This is a great opportunity to model for your kid how to recover from failure and learn from your mistakes. Be honest about your underperformance and make time to have some heart-to-heart conversations with your kid about the family rules and values.

Shift #4: Reallocate the blame. 

I'll say it again because I need you to remember it and it should inform your parenting:

Kids do well when they can.

If your student isn't living up to your expectations, first ask yourself if you can do more to support them. Then ask yourself if your expectations are realistic, given who your child is.

Parenting is hard work! You may need to seek out your own support (therapy, parenting classes, self-help books, wine club, etc.).  

When you shift your thinking and the way you address failure, even a little, you'll notice a positive change in your child and your relationship with them. I know you can do it!! If you would like some help in that direction, here are a few books I recommend:

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

by Julie Lythcott-Haims

The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups

by Leonard Sax

 Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind

by Michael J. Bradley 

P.S. If you’re having a strong, negative reaction to my critical feedback, perhaps feeling unfairly judged, attacked, or maligned--welcome to your kid’s world. This is just some random blog post. I don’t even know you. Your child experiences a barrage of negative feedback from people they love on a regular basis. If you’re feeling disheartened and demoralized because you’re doing the best you can, I hear you. We all feel that way at times. Take a moment to lean into that feeling (because it’s real), and then make a pact with yourself to make a small shift in the way you talk to your kid. That’s a great start!


*Support services don't have to come with a high price tag. We are fortunate to live in an area where resources abound for low/single-income families. Make the time to identify your child's needs and take advantage of the resources available to you. Here are a few.



Lisa Miller