The 4 Ways Teens Deal with Failure

Teen Failed in Tennis
Anthony Lee / Caiaimage / Getty Images

Missing a goal on the soccer field, getting a low grade on an exam, or being overlooked for the National Honor Society are just a few of the events where teens may fail. While some teens are able to use failure as an opportunity to become better, for others failure diminishes their confidence and self-worth.

Teens who don’t learn to successfully deal with the discomfort associated with failure, could develop a serious fear of failure.

That fear may lead to avoidance of difficult tasks or a refusal to participate in activities where they don’t excel. For some, this fear carries into adulthood and prevents them from reaching their greatest potential.

Research on Failure

UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington has spent years researching the ways people respond to failure. He discovered that the ability to achieve is critical to maintaining self-worth. When people fail to perform, they often believe they’re not worthy as individuals.

Teens who begin to doubt their ability to succeed are likely to engage in in practices that preserve their self-worth. The more they fail, the more their excuses or defense mechanisms become essential.

Covington’s research discovered that students fall into one of these four categories when it comes to dealing with failure:

1. Success-Oriented 

Success-oriented students view failure as an opportunity to learn and grow better.

When they fail to achieve, they invest their energy into improving their skills and they don’t believe failure diminishes their worth as a human being. Teens who fall into this category tend to have parents who praise their successes and rarely reprimand their failures.

2. Overstrivers

Failure is detrimental to the self-worth of an overstriver.

These teens avoid failure at all costs by putting in an immense amount of effort. They are highly motivated by their fear of failure and they become perfectionists in their desire to maintain their self-worth.

Overstrivers tend to doubt their abilities. To try and gain approval from others, an overstriver may tell her peers that she didn’t study for a test, when in reality, she spent hours studying. Then, when she gets a good score, she hopes other students will assume she succeeded with very little effort.

3. Failure-Avoiding

Failure-avoiding students care less about succeeding and more about avoiding failure. They believe if they put in a lot of effort, failure means they have low abilities. But, if they don’t put in any effort, failure doesn’t threaten their self-worth.

Failure-avoiding teens tend to make excuses about their performance. They sometimes refuse to participate in certain activities where they’ll need to put in effort and they occasionally choose near-impossible tasks where no one expects success.

These students often struggle in situations where teachers and parents reward effort – and not necessarily the outcome.

These students often find non-academic ways to succeed – like on the sports field. Their parents rarely praise success and instead, punish them for failing.

4. Failure-Accepting

Failure-accepting students have already drawn the conclusion that they are failures. They believe their repeated failures mean they lack the ability to succeed and they give up trying. Whenever they do experience success, they attribute to other factors, like good luck. They tend to have very little interest in academic achievement.

Much like the failure-avoiding students, failure-accepting students tend to look for ways to succeed outside the classroom. They too tend to have parents who punish them for their failures. They often develop the belief that their parents’ love and acceptance depends upon their academic success.

Help Your Teen Deal with Failure

The good news is, no matter which category your teen falls into, you can help your teen learn to bounce back from failure. Take steps to raise a confident teen who isn’t afraid to try new things or tackle tough challenges. A well-rounded teen who isn’t afraid to fail is likely to increase her chances of success in life.


Covington, M. V. (1983). Motivated cognitions. In S. G. Paris, G. M. Olson, & H. W. Stevenson (Eds.), Learning and motivation in the classroom (pp. 139-164). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Covington, M. V. (1992). Making the grade: A self-worth perspective on motivation and school reform. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Covington, M. V., & Omelich, C. (1979). Effort: The double-edged sword in school achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 169, 182.

Continue Reading