Prosperity May be a Risk Factor for Teens; Failure a Blessing

by Gary Gilles

Never a failure always a lesson signHow does the prospect of having more money, a bigger house or a newer car sound? If you are like most parents struggling to make ends meet, a windfall of prosperity would be more than welcome.

But, there is a price families pay for that prosperity and it shows itself most acutely in the adolescent years, according to recent research. This finding of the study shows that while affluence often benefits young children in their development, health care and academics, it later becomes a risk factor for adolescents. Teens from affluent homes are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and use substances than teens from less affluent homes.

Reframing failure

One of the main reasons cited in this research for these increased risk factors stems from affluent parents’ inability to let their teenager fail. As adolescents try to find their way in the world through friendships, academics, athletics and other endeavors, they are inevitably going to miss the mark and sometimes the entire target. We need to change our way of thinking about “failure.” What many parents, especially affluent parents, perceive as failure in their teens is merely a learning curve. Mastering a task or building a set of skills typically takes a lot of repeated practice.

If parents communicate (either consciously or unconsciously) that their love is conditional based upon the teen’s performance or ability to succeed at a given task, then it fractures the security of the parent-teen relationship. That security is a critical anchor your teen needs. And contrary to popular opinion, adolescents need the grounding of emotionally attuned parents to help them navigate the often stormy developmental process of adolescence.

A pervasive illusion

Many of today’s youth are following an illusion perpetuated in popular culture: that if you are naturally good at something, it should come easily. And failure is to be avoided at all costs. In fact, failure is perceived as a confirmation that you are not working in an area of natural talent or giftedness.

But, young people (and apparently some parents as well) seem to be largely unaware that developing competency is a process. This process begins with little to no knowledge about the subject or task at hand. It is only by digging in and gradually adding to your knowledge base that you eventually build competency. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to master algebra, skiing or public speaking; it is not innate ability that enables you to develop mastery of a skill but repeated and sustained practice. And failure, rather than a statement of your limited intellect or skill level is actually a necessary part of building competency. But it requires resiliency to bounce back from perceived failure. Ask any successful musician, artist, salesperson, athlete or business owner. They’ve embraced their failures as learning opportunities to help them improve.

Takeaways for parents

So, what is your teen’s understanding of how to achieve mastery in some chosen area? Is it the result of hard work, persistence and practice or do they, and possibly you, unconsciously subscribe to the innate talent myth?

Here are some suggestions of how you can build resiliency in your teen to stay with a task, even amid perceived failure. It is one of the most important life lessons you can teach.

  • Help them set clear goals and make realistic plans to accomplish them. Make the goals challenging but achievable.
  • Break the larger goal into smaller tasks. Sidestep the possible feeling of overwhelm by breaking the larger goal into smaller tasks. Show them how the accomplishment of one task naturally builds on the next one.
  • Foster an optimistic, can-do-attitude. Show that you believe in their abilities. This increases their perception that they can in fact go beyond what they thought they were capable of doing.
  • Encourage persistence in the face of obstacles and difficulties. The need to do something multiple times can be seen either as failure or practice. Emphasize the latter toward skill mastery.
  • Nurture resilience in the face of failure. Help them anticipate adversity and what to do when they encounter it. Encourage them to find solutions to this adversity instead of quitting or drawing the premature conclusion that they aren’t able to overcome the challenge.

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