How Do We Prepare Our Children For Failure?

How Do We Prepare Our Children For Failure?

Our house is a hotbed of exam anxiety at the moment as our eldest is in the final throes of preparing for his A’levels.  I have followed all my own advice and even that of others about managing his stress but it is tough – he is worried.

This is it, the culmination of years of hard work and as he sees it the end of the road if he gets it all wrong.

“Is this what panic feels like?” ” I am not going to get those three A’s.” “Who was I trying to kid applying for the Russell Group Universities?  I am just not clever enough. ”  “I am going to defer and do it next year.”

  • The Reality of Pressure

As the days pass  this is the conversation that repeats on loop at varying intervals from morning until night.  There is no respite.  True to his revision timetable he appears like a parrot on my shoulder at 40 minute intervals to either discuss what he has learnt, what he is about to learn or his heightened anxiety.

There is nowhere to hide.  I am hunted from dawn until dusk.  Such is the plight of the SAHM of a teenager taking exams.

My youngest teenager meanwhile sits in the neighbouring room diligently preparing for her own Year 9 exams and living in constant fear of being shot down in flames if she so much as mentions one syllable of the stress word in his presence.

It is no surprise that our teens are susceptible to moments of self-doubt and anxiety when under so much pressure to succeed. As parents we evidently adopt all the strategies of reassurance at our disposal in the hope that we can allay their fears long enough to get them to walk through the door of the exam room and turn over the paper.  I have dug deep this week to placate and reassure him not only of his own ability but of our confidence in his ability. He was worked tirelessly and deserves to be rewarded.

  • The Competition Is Tough

The truth, however, is there are no guarantees.  Despite thorough revision, every year some pupils do fall short of what they need to go to University and the scramble for clearing places through UCAS commences.

What’s not often talked about, however, is that upwards of 60,000 students use the system every year to find a place at university, and for many of these, it’s a positive experience and out of initial failure comes success.

More than 30 years ago I was one of those students.  I can still remember the moment like it was yesterday.  Waiting patiently for the postman to deliver the scrap of paper that would deliver the verdict on which course my life would take next. The shock.  The disappointment of my parents.  The “oh shit” moment, followed swiftly by “what next?”

I phoned my first choice university, they agreed to defer my place if I boosted one of my grades.  I did that in the next academic term and then secured various work placements and went travelling.  My academic journey took a different pathway but it wasn’t a bad one.  It was the best time of my life and benefited me in so many ways.

Personally I don’t want that for our son.  I want him to succeed first time around.  I was studying humanities.  It could be picked up at any point.  He on the other hand is a mathematics whizz and in the debate over the gap year option, he was advised to keep at it and surge ahead on the crest of his wave.  If, however, like me he doesn’t deliver what he needs we will obviously turn to Plan B and make it work.

In the meantime, the message is clear.  “You can only do your best.”  

Underlying this however is the fact that he isn’t prepared for disappointment or failure.

“I haven’t failed at anything yet.  I wouldn’t know what to do.”  These were his words yesterday.  I reminded him of my own plight at his age.   I wasn’t ready for it either.  Nobody is.

  • Facing Disappointment and Failure 

So how do we prepare our children, our teenagers for disappointment and for failure?

Simply, you can’t.  I certainly wasn’t prepared.  I knew after my exams that my chances of achieving what was necessary were slim but I hoped I was wrong.  Isn’t that what we all do? Hold on to hope.  Even if our son messes it up, he will rage for a bit, get hysterical but until the verdict is delivered on the morning of 17th August he will still hold onto hope.

Nothing can prepare you for that punch to the stomach that says “You fell short this time.”

Three years ago our daughter faced disappointment when she didn’t secure a place at her first choice secondary school.  In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise but at the time she was beside herself.  She has come out a stronger person and unlike her brother is far more balanced in her approach to stress and the possibility of failure.

My mantra in being a mother of teenagers is communication, honesty and sharing.  There will be some things that as maturing teenagers they don’t want to disclose but I hope that over the years I have developed a level of trust that guarantees them the assurity of at least one thing and that is my support, our support – that regardless of the outcome we will be there for them in the same way my parents were there for me and still are.

The world may feel like it is ending but it won’t and they will survive.

The truth behind all of this is that you can’t be prepared for failure until  it happens.  Failure itself is the only thing that teaches you how to cope with it.  It doesn’t matter how much we say as parents to reassure our children the harsh cold reality of failure is the only teacher but it doesn’t make them a failure.

An exchange with Alison at Unique Minds Counselling reminded me that persuading our teenagers to “Believe” in themselves is paramount. I know that as a parent I am not alone in that quest and Alison was spot on in her advice “The stress they put themselves under often engulfs them and they can only see life in one direction.  I try to encourage them to see that life has many pathways and whatever the outcome of exams – doesn’t define them as a person.” 


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  1. June 16, 2017 / 6:48 pm

    It’s so hard to know what to do, isn’t it? You can’t very well say Oh, don’t worry if you drop a grade or two, because then he’ll think you expect him to fail, and he won’t believe that things can work out even if this year goes pear-shaped. Best of luck to you all #tweensteensbeyond

  2. June 13, 2017 / 2:48 pm

    It’s so important for them to learn how to handle failure, because it happens to everyone, but it’s so hard to prepare them for that. I don’t think it’s taught well in schools or society, how to handle things when they don’t go your way.
    Such a good post! Thank you! Ps good luck to him in his exams! Sorry comment is a bit late!

  3. June 9, 2017 / 8:03 pm

    Thanks for the shout out for my blog post Jo! Yes it is so hard. You make the point about failure very well. Failure is something that we all have to experience and, sadly, we don’t get to choose when we experience it. Schools do put a lot of pressure on kids and sometimes I think that our role is to balance that out by getting it back in perspective. Yes he may fail to get the grades he wants. Will it be disappointing? Yes. Will it make his life go in a different direction? Maybe. Is it the end of the world? Definitely not! Is he still an important, intelligent young man with a great future ahead of him. Hell yes! xx #TweensTeensBeyon

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 2:12 pm

      Great point Sharon, that is exactly how I feel. If he fails it will be a defining moment in his life but it won’t define him as a person. It is hard getting them to see that sometimes though. #TweensTeensBeyond

  4. June 9, 2017 / 5:42 pm

    I’m not there yet but BP will be in Year 9 next year so I’m sure we’ll have issues then. I only hope I can be as calm as you seem to be.
    Thanks for linking to #pocolo

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 2:10 pm

      Oh yes that is a relatively calm time. My youngest is Year 9 – the calm before the storm of GCSE’s! Thanks for your comment Morgan. #PoCoLo

  5. June 9, 2017 / 5:36 pm

    my kids have learnt failure at very different stages in their lives. The eldest now 28 has never made an effort at anything and he’s never viewed himself as a failure when things haven’t gone the way he wants, but then he tends to say it’s the fault of a, b, c etc. The next one now 25 learnt in his early teens that winning and being the best wasn’t necessarily going to help him in life. He played in a football team that lost every week at least 10-0 but he had a very close group of friends, who are still in touch today, academically he took the vocational route and has just announced today that he’s moving to Australia in August, he’s constantly trying new and different things. The next child played football for a winning team, if they lost there was sheer devastation and tears, negativity and anger, he however took things very differently through school and if he failed it just made him work harder. The youngest has had a huge wake up call this month after not getting his apprenticeship of chose and now he’s life is over and he’s pressing the self destruct button…….what can you do?

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 1:52 pm

      Oh wow Suzanne, you have experienced the full gamut of scenarios and emotions. It sounds as though your children are all very different and it is interesting to read how they have all chosen different paths for themselves with lots of learning points along the way by the sounds of it too. #TweensTeensBeyond

  6. June 8, 2017 / 8:55 pm

    My youngest sister is sitting her A levels at the moment too. It’s hard to watch her be so stressed and imagine the fall-out should her plan A not come together – and yet, as someone who gave up her university place and studied via a work day release to obtain my degree in the end, I know all too well that it may not be the worst outcome.

    Thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub. Good luck in getting through exam period!

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 1:49 pm

      That is a lovely story! It is great to hear of a success that does not follow the normal pathway. There are so many different ways to success and it is important to be reminded of that sometimes. Hope your sister does well. Thanks for commenting. #coolmumclub

  7. June 8, 2017 / 8:01 pm

    I have everything crossed for your son. I think failure is an important lesson in life, but as caring parents we don’t ever want it to happen to our children. As an adult, returning to work after having children, I kept failing at interviews and took it quite badly because until that point I’d always got every job I’d applied for. It’s a difficult time for both parents and children x #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 1:47 pm

      Oh well done you for keeping at it. The thought of going back to work and doing interviews again terrifies me whereas there was a time I used to love it. #TweensTeensBeyond

  8. June 8, 2017 / 11:53 am

    As a teacher, this is very relevant in my world always- yet they are not my children. Exam life is hard x #coolmumclub

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 4:02 pm

      Yes you must see it all from a very different perspective. #coolmumclub

  9. June 8, 2017 / 11:15 am

    Brilliant post – so true that the only way to learn about failure is to go through it, and for many of our kids they have lived in this protected bubble of success where everything is lovely for them, so it will come as a real shock when they are faced with not getting to where they expected to get. I wholeheartedly agree that there is so much more to life than exams and grades, and many of my friends who did not excel at school academically, and did not get into the best universities (or what were deemed to be the best) have gone on to be the most successful in their lives. They showed more grit and determination I think, which made them fight for careers. Can only imagine what a stressy time it is in your household and I wish both your children so much luck in their exams, and success in whatever they end up doing. #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 1:43 pm

      Oh thanks Susie for your comments. As parents we do all we can to protect our children but there are some things that are beyond our control and the lesson must be learnt the hard way but as I know myself that is not a bad thing. The stress comes in waves at the moment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  10. pam lorimer
    June 8, 2017 / 9:45 am

    Brilliantly written. The pressure put on teenages is unbelieveable. I dont feel that i was equiped at 17 to plan my future – at 32 im getting there! Sounds like your doing a great job with your kids. #coolmumclub

    • Jo
      June 12, 2017 / 3:57 pm

      I think there is certainly more pressure to succeed than I remember from my own teenage years. Thanks for your lovely comment. #coolmumclub

  11. oldhouseintheshires
    June 7, 2017 / 5:10 pm

    Popping back from #TweenTeensBeyond.
    i saw your post of Instagram today and I haven’t had time to reply (writing reports all day but getting very distracted on here….) I just wanted to send you (((hugs))) as I know how you must be worrying for him. x

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 6:14 pm

      Oh bless you that is very sweet! The day started a bit gloomy with more anxiety over breakfast, but there is a glimmer of hope this evening and I mean that literally. He has a couple of days before his next exam and went into college today to chat to his teachers and seems to have come back feeling better about everything – long may it continue! Thanks for your lovely comment and thoughts. Hope all is well in your household. #TweensTeensBeyond

  12. Sadie
    June 7, 2017 / 1:44 pm

    Failure, like heartbreak, is one of those things you can’t understand unless you go through it. I think your approach, supportive and open, is the best we can provide as parents. Your kids are very lucky to have someone who cares as much as you clearly do, both about their education but also about their options and their emotions.

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 6:17 pm

      Oh Sadie, thank you that is so kind. We all want the best for our children and their anxiety and pain is ours too. I know they are doing their utmost and that is all I can ask of them ultimately and I try whatever way I can to reassure them of my support to lessen the anxiety. Thanks for your comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  13. June 7, 2017 / 11:57 am

    Such a sane post! I love the fact that you are being practical and level-headed about it, especially because failure is anathema to a lot of people, especially kids. I love Jessica Lahey’s Gift of Failure and keep re-iterating it to those who worry about the backlash that comes from it. Failure has a lot to teach us, one of them being resilience and surviving in the face of terrible odds.

    Tell your son a secret. I took 3 subjects in my A-levels. I actually failed one. It was sent back for re-evaluation and I managed to scrape through. It devastated me but here I am today, looking back at it as one of the best things that ever happened.Maybe I will blog about it soon. It will be 20 years since it happened but hey, all in good time 🙂


    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:52 pm

      Oh thank you for your lovely and valuable comment. What wise words indeed and so true. Failure like mistakes is there for us to learn from and shapes us into the people that we become. Your story of disappointment like mine at the same age is a perfect example of that. Thanks for sharing your story. #TweensTeensBeyond

  14. June 7, 2017 / 8:47 am

    This is a hard one. To keep your head when probably you are feeling as bad as your young one – not because he didn’t get into a course of his choice but because he is so very upset. At that moment it does feel like life will stop, but the thing is it doesn’t. Yeah communication and sharing are the keys to helping our kids. I found my true calling after years of studying and then working in all kinds of fields. I think making ourselves an example and letting them know that the first path we chose might not be the best one at all, is important. #TweensTeensBeyond.

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 6:19 pm

      I so agree, there are so many of us who don’t follow the straight path to our final destination and take a detour along the way, the challenge is convincing our teens that it is ok if things don’t according to plan, the bottom won’t fall out of their world. Thanks for your comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  15. June 6, 2017 / 5:51 pm

    My oldest child is a sixteen year old girl and she is very hard on herself! I try to share my own mistakes with her, because it is important for her to understand that perfection does not exist! The only way her confidence will grow is if she makes mistakes and learns from them! I know it sounds funny, but I want her to make mistakes!


    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 6:22 pm

      Oh I totally get that. Mistakes are important – they define us and make us work harder at success. With our teens it is probably the fear of the unknown that is the biggest challenge for them. Once they fail and do recover as my daughter did then everything about failing can be placed in perspective. #TweensTeensBeyond

  16. Oldhouseintheshires
    June 6, 2017 / 5:35 pm

    What a great post and some excellent advice here. I have the GCSE and A Level double whammy next year and I have to say I’m not looking forward to it!! Last year was my eldest sitting her GCSEs and she is a studious, calm and hard working girl but it was so tough. Thank you. #tweensteensbeyond

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 6:24 pm

      Oh my goodness, poor you, that will be a tough year indeed unless they both help each other along of course. I have a year’s grace before we start on this treadmill again and intend to make the most of every minute. #TweensTeensBeyond

  17. June 6, 2017 / 4:27 pm

    Goodness, the stress is palpable. I’m not at this stage yet, my eldest is only 14 but I can well imagine the pressure teens put upon themselves at exam times. Drama!! Your advice is good and solid though – communication is key. Not always easy but key. Such a good read. #teenstweenbeyond

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:18 pm

      We have been through a lot of exams in this house but none as defining as these for sure – until he gets to University of course but then I won’t be there to witness it all. Thanks for joining us. #TweensTeensBeyond

  18. June 6, 2017 / 2:40 pm

    I love your mantra. I’m adopting it now. I can relate to wanting your children to succeed, to feel good about themselves, to do well. It’s so hard not to have a say in it. You can only do your best–them and us, too!


    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:37 pm

      Underpinning all this I want them to succeed for themselves because they want to. My parents were so adamant that to succeed I needed to achieve certain things in life and I try not to be quite so dogmatic in my approach. I have many mantras!

  19. June 6, 2017 / 2:39 pm

    It really is hard. I feel that our teen now has the mindset that she will fail at everything. Getting her to actually try instead of keeping this self fullfilling cycle going has been a challenge. Great post. #teenstweens

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:39 pm

      That is tough. Once their mind is set on a certain belief it is really difficult to shift it and exhausting actually. I hope things start to improve now that she is prepared to try. Thanks for your comment. #TweensTeensBeyond

  20. Fee
    June 6, 2017 / 1:13 pm

    My son struggles with failure – It’s so hard to get him to understand that we all fail at times. #TweensTeensBeyind

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:41 pm

      Oh bless, it is such a hard lesson for all our children but sadly it is a fact of life that there will be disappointments along the way. Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t? #TweensTeensBeyond

  21. June 6, 2017 / 11:38 am

    Oh it really is just such a hard time for both them and us as parents. We know that learning from our failings should be commendable but it’s so hard to parent. There is so much pressure on the children which they also put on themselves – particularly the bright ones, I find. They can only do their best and what can sometimes be their biggest fear isn’t actually quite as scary when it arrives. With the love and support of a balanced family, they will get through it. Really hope your son gets the results it sounds like he deserves #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:45 pm

      The examination system just creates a hothouse of pressure for our children. I don’t remember being tested quite so rigorously all the time. The trouble is they all believe that unless they get those top grades as well they are not a success. Those A’s and A*’s have a lot to answer for, but ultimately they can only do what they can. #TweensTeensBeyond

  22. June 6, 2017 / 10:38 am

    This scares the life out of me to be honest! My son is 12 and has so far shown he is really scared of exams and the time pressure just eats away at him. He has progressed though and each one he does better and better. I constantly remind him that as long as he does his best that’s all we can ask for, if he doesn’t do as well as he hopes he would then its no big deal, we’ll fix it and find a way around it. I’ve also realised lately that at his age he actually needs me just as much as he did when he was toddler. You think they get more independent and it may get easier, but I actually find that the teen age is, if anything, just as demanding and far more important! Scary stuff really… #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      June 7, 2017 / 7:49 pm

      Oh Natalie I couldn’t agree more with your comments. The teenage years are certainly not a walk in the park, they need a lot of guidance, support and reassurance. It is a rocky road but it can be fun navigating even if there are some testing times on route. The time pressure of exams is tough for them all. My youngest totally lost it when she was 12 and did her first secondary school exam, all her grades were down because she just mucked up her time management. That is a big learning point in itself and even now after all these years, my eldest says there is never enough time. #TweensTeensBeyond

  23. June 5, 2017 / 2:39 pm

    As someone who has always worried about failure, and didn’t deal well with failure as a child, I think this is so important! I’m beginning to think sometimes failures are a blessing in disguise, such as with your daughter #postsfromtheheart

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 10:56 pm

      Failure is certainly stepping stone to success. We can’t get it right all the time, that is just not possible. Thanks for your comment. #postsfromtheheart

  24. June 5, 2017 / 1:04 am

    We all need to believe in ourselves more. If we dont no one else will. This is what we should be teaching our kids #postfromtheheart

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 1:59 pm

      Absolutely right. The perfect motto for life and the sooner our children can grasp that the better. #postsfromtheheart

  25. June 3, 2017 / 7:48 am

    i fear our biggest problem is that we tell our children today that they can achieve anything they want and have everything they want, and i think we often forget to add that for this to be achieved hard decisions and sacrifices will need to be made along the way

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 1:53 pm

      Suzanne, that is so true. I frequently tell mine that they will get out of life what they put in and that for them at the moment applies to studying hard. Only they can do it and as long as they have tried their best that is good enough for me. Thanks for your comment.

  26. June 2, 2017 / 11:04 pm

    Good luck. I hope he hears your message, because believing in yourself is probably the best approach, but hard to do. I am forever telling my daughter to drop the what-ifs and stop writing history before it has happened. Better to get on with the now and deal with whatever comes along at the time. Hats off to your daughter too. She sounds like my second child. #pocolo

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 1:55 pm

      It’s interesting the amount of time children debate the what ifs of life. It is as though they are looking for constant reassurance and need to know the outcome of scenarios before they happen. Thanks for your comment Cheryl. #pocolo

  27. June 2, 2017 / 6:06 pm

    It’s so horrible to see our children worrying that they are going to fail isn’t it? We tell our kids that so long as they can truly say that they tried their best then we can’t ask for any more than that. I hope exam season goes well for your son and that he achieves the grades that he wants/needs, it sounds like he’s got an awesome mum supporting him xx #PoCoLo

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 2:01 pm

      Oh thank you for your lovely comment. I do try as best I can. I have just returned from dropping him at his first exam and the nerves are there for sure but I hope that he can control them rather than let them control him. #PoCoLo

  28. June 2, 2017 / 4:52 pm

    Mine are only little but I do think about the future and I hope I can teach them that failing doesn’t make you a failure it’s merely a learning experience. Good luck to them for their exams

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 2:02 pm

      Yes life and all its ups and downs are part of the rich tapestry of our lives and teach us many valuable lessons along the way. #ablogginggoodtime

  29. Imperfect Mum
    June 2, 2017 / 3:45 pm

    Oh I really hope he does well! It’s so hard to see them so stressed and as a parent we want to protect our kids but like when they were small and we had to watch as they stumbled and picked themselves back up again we need to do that when they are older too. I love the quote I don’t fail I have learning opportunities. Thank you for linking up to #ablogginggoodtime ????

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 1:57 pm

      The job doesn’t get easier just more challenging. Great quote. I will need to drop that into the conversation over the next few weeks. #ablogginggoodtime

  30. June 2, 2017 / 12:29 pm

    It’s so hard to teach children about failure, but somehow it has to be done as it happens to us all.

    • June 2, 2017 / 12:35 pm

      Forgot to add … Good luck!

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 1:57 pm

      You are right of course and as failure itself is the only teacher. Thanks for your comment.

      • June 6, 2017 / 9:25 pm

        Back again from #tweensteensandbeyond

  31. I totally agree with your last statement – there is so much more to life that exams and grades. Like for you daughter when she didn’t get into her first choice school, ‘failure’ often is a blessing in disguise.
    Still, best of luck to both your teenagers, and you, at this very stressful time x

    • Jo
      June 5, 2017 / 2:04 pm

      Annette that is so true, there are many times when my first choice has not happened and in hindsight the secondary outcome was by far the better one. Part of it is that as parents we want to protect them from that but actually to grow they need to embrace the bad and the good. Thanks for your comment. #ablogginggoodtime

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