Gift of Failure: How Parents Learn to Let Go
No one said raising kids was easy, but when it comes to teenagers that’s a completely different animal.
On a weekly basis I am bombarded with calls and emails from parents that are at their wit’s end dealing with their teen — we hear this a lot:
“Our highly intelligent son used to bring home all A’s now he is barely making D’s!”
“Our daughter used to be a cheerleader, she was the captain, now she just quit!”
“It’s not my son, it’s his friends.”
“My daughter is so beautiful, smart, always had so many friends — now she is failing and someone we don’t even recognize.”
Generalizing this, they are good kids sometimes making bad choices.
Is it today’s society of technology? Peer pressure? Parenting?
Maybe it can be a combination of life as a teen with a sprinkle of each of the above, after-all, it’s just not easy being a teen in any generation — and it’s not easy being a parent either.
Every parent needs the priceless Gift of Failure.
When I read this book this, I couldn’t put it down – and I don’t have teens or children anymore! It’s a page-turner and it made me realize the many parenting mistakes I made as a parent. It also actually helps me to understand why my adult kids act the way they do. Yikes!
Author, Jessica Lahey, was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Q. For the many parents that have told their teenagers from a very young age just how very smart they are and now they are facing the consequences since their child is either failing or severely underachieving — is there a way to turn this around if they are in middle school or high school?
JL: When parents get emotional at my speaking events, it’s usually the parents of teens who have been overparented into a state of near-helplessness, or praised for being smart or talented or gifted solidly into a fixed mindset. These parents get upset because they are finally coming to terms with how VERY little time they have left to turn that ship around. They can do it, though. The first step is to get SERIOUSLY honest with their teens about the fact that mistakes have been made. Extreme honesty may be frightening, but the only way to get buy-in from teens is to admit to mistakes, announce your intentions to let go and give your teen more autonomy and opportunities to learn, and – here’s the most important part – mean it.
Next, set crystal clear expectations – for school, household duties, wherever you are backing off, and explain what the consequences will be if those expectations are not met. Try to keep the consequences as relevant to the task at hand as possible. For example, if homework is not getting handed in, it will be the teen’s responsibility to set up a meeting with their teacher and find out what needs to be done to remedy the situation. Inform your child’s teachers of this change in protocol if you have previously been over-involved in your child’s academic life, and let the teacher know that you won’t be checking in, or logging into the grading portal, and therefore, the teacher will need to inform you if things go deeply awry.
Once you’ve handed some autonomy back to your kid, tell them that you trust them to be able to handle it, and that you are still there for them if they need you. There will be a honeymoon period where everything goes beautifully, followed by a relapse and testing period where the teen feels out the limits of his or her new autonomy, but eventually, the pendulum will come to rest in a reasonable, healthy place.
Q. Parent’s frequently will say, “It’s not my teen, it’s their friends/peers that they are hanging with,” when it pertains to negative behavior. If this is true or not, should parents intervene with friendships?
JL: It’s important for parents to understand that the role of friendship changes as kids mature. Early on in life, friendships are more about proximity than anything else. Kids pick friends from whomever is nearby. As kids get older, they begin to choose friends based on identities and traits they’d like to try on for themselves. Those friends may not always be your cup of tea, but try to think of these kids as a safer way for your child to decide whether they want to be like that friend. Talk to your child about how that friend makes them feel. What do they admire in that friend? Why do they like to spend time with that friend? Talk about your own relationships – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Talk about the people you have left behind because they made you feel bad about yourself, inspired competition, or tried to change you. Your experience, offered in a supportive manner, is invaluable to your teen as they navigate these friendships and trial identities.
Q. As a teacher, please share with parents of teenagers (especially since they will be heading into adulthood shortly), why the Gift of Failure is such an important lesson to learn – and it’s better to start now, then never.
JL: If there’s one takeaway I hope parents of teens will take away from The Gift of Failure, it’s that our short term goal of making our children happy and making ourselves feel good about our parenting are sometimes incompatible with the more long-term goals of creating competent, capable adults. Think long term. Think about how you will feel about your parenting a year from now, rather than tomorrow. Parenting is a long-haul job.
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