Why failing helps you be successful

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By one measure, Reggie Jackson was the greatest failure in his sport, having struck out 2,597 times in his 21-year career, more than any athlete who has ever played Major League Baseball. Despite these thousands of disappointments, Jackson is in baseball’s Hall of Fame for his many accomplishments, including 563 home runs and five World Series championships.


Disappointments, whether trivial or traumatic, are a part of life. Some people get so upset when things or people don’t live up to their expectations, while others simply take things in stride and move on. For some kids, a low score on a test is an incentive to study more. For others, it simply confirms their own self-doubts about their competence and they give up.


Helping kids deal with failure and frustrations is critical to their success and happiness. According to recent research in the January publication of Child Trends, adolescents who have such resiliency have several characteristics in common.


1. Caring adults


Parents, coaches, teachers and other adults are extremely important in the lives of adolescents. Kids who have kind and considerate people in their lives are much more likely to deal well with failure. These teens have the social support of people who care, and thus they tend not to overreact to disappointments. These adults also serve an important role of guiding teens in how to interpret unpleasant events and develop strategies to avoid problems in the future.


2. Good thinking skills


Teens who are resilient think differently about the world than kids who overreact to stress. They have the ability to think about issues, consider options and take positive actions. One of my former clients got very depressed every weekend if her friends didn’t invite her to do something. She never considered all of the other things she could do, such as reach out to other kids, volunteer at an animal shelter or pursue a hobby.


Here is where adults can be very helpful, but please be careful. Most teens don’t like to be told what to do, so it’s a bit tricky to figure out how to gently guide your adolescent to come up with good ways to deal with failures.


3. Talents


Resilient teens have one or more special skills. They don’t overrespond to failure because they have confidence in their own abilities. This isn’t the same as the silly notion of having a positive self-concept based upon adults telling them how good they are. These teens are confident based upon their past behavior, not upon their feelings. Jackson knew he was a superior athlete because of his performance on the baseball field, and thus never let his record number of failures affect his career.


Allow your kids to fail. It will help them be successful.



Dr. Gregory Ramey is a child psychologist at Dayton Children’s Medical Center.


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