Your teen comes home past curfew smelling of alcohol.
Your middle schooler broke a friend's video game console in a fit of poor sportsmanship.
Your tween said something mean to a friend and now has no one to sit with at lunch.
Time and again, your child will fail in ways that public, embarrassing, and baffling to you.
One of the central challenges of parenting is figuring out when to step in to prevent our kids from suffering, and when to let painful events run their course.
As a writer who makes a living researching and analyzing adolescent development, I enjoy asking adults to reflect on their own coming of age experiences and, if they’re willing, to share with me what they learned from a time they totally screwed up. At a recent launch event for my book, Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success, about helping kids overcome adolescent setbacks and failures, people shared stories about their own childhood mistakes:
“I wanted revenge on a mean kid in my neighborhood, so I made a disgusting concoction of food and dumped it on his family’s car, then lied about doing it.”
“I broke my friend’s heart when I told her I couldn’t be seen with her anymore because she wasn’t popular.”
“I stole lumber from a construction site to make a tree house and got busted by the cops.”
If a group seems reticent to expose their own mistakes, I go first. I tell them about the time—when I was sixteen and lucky enough to be in a “high end hippy” farm-to table boarding school—I stopped doing morning chores so I could sleep late. My bad choices led to an even worse discovery, what happens when you don’t feed animals their breakfast for several days in a row. I’ll spare you the details here. Just know the guilt and embarrassment of that one stuck with me for a solid decade.
What I learned from that setback is a lesson I’ll never forget: I disliked the feeling of regret much more than I liked the feeling of self-indulgence. That’s the kind of thing you can’t learn from adults sharing parables about growth or pointing fingers to blame others for what happened. You just have to live it.
Generally, when I ask people to share stories about their setbacks, they’re open to it. With time and hindsight, they’ll inject notes of humor and self-deprecation, nostalgia, and ultimately, relief at being able to share. Many people will admit to a lingering guilt, but still, most can say they’re glad for the experience anyway, because of what it taught them.
We adults know firsthand that our most profound growth comes from pain. Yet, as parents, it’s hard to decide when to let our kids fall face forward into the inevitable pain of a mistake, and when to intervene to protect them. Isn’t it our job to keep our kids safe and free from injury, both physical and mental? Yes, it is. Isn’t it also our responsibility to help our kids become independent, productive members of society? Yes to this, too. It’s confusing because the line between protecting kids and letting them learn hard lessons is thin.
There is a term for this in the plant world. Greenhouse keepers call it “hardening off” young plants, a process through which they expose tender seedlings to harsh, freezing conditions for increasing periods of time before they leave the greenhouse for good. This toughens the plants, so they aren’t shocked to death by the conditions of the real world.
Kids, like plants, need toughening up.
They must be exposed to the harsh conditions of failure from time to time, so that when they’re ready to strike out on their own, they’re not shocked by the reality of life beyond your doorstep.
For my book, I interviewed parents whose children experienced setbacks that ranged from subtle to shocking. Some had trouble connecting with their peers or believing in themselves. Others were suspended or hospitalized for overly risky behavior. The most surprising thing was never what the kids did; it was how the parents felt, once enough time had passed to reveal the lesson.
I asked thirty parents if I gave them a magic wand that could erase a difficult, even terrifying, experience from their child’s life, would they use it? All but one said no. Most clarified that if I’d asked this during the event, the answer would have been different. But after the wounds started healing, the scars were just too valuable to give up. Their kids learned things they are using to be better adults: how to set boundaries, where their limits were, who to trust, and why guilt is worth avoiding. Most importantly, they learned how to cope with hard feelings and that when the next bad thing happened, they’d be ready to cope again. More wonderful things you can’t learn from parables and pointing fingers.
Failure, setbacks, and embarrassment are painful. That’s a good thing. They force kids to develop resiliency.
I’m not suggesting you create these harsh conditions yourself. Please don’t. Let your home be a soft-landing spot for your child throughout their adolescence. But I am saying it’s not your job to protect them from inevitable, external pain or discomfort.
At the same time, you should still be alert for when your kids are exposed to conditions too tough for them to cope with alone. Just as children don’t learn when everything goes perfectly, they also don’t grow from experiencing trauma, like physical or emotional abuse. They learn and grow when they cope with situations that are appropriately and temporarily challenging, like the breakdown of a friendship or getting cut from a team.
On the heels of the pandemic, with rising rates of mental distress, increased gun violence, political despair, climate crises, and a list of adolescent worries that seems to have no end, it feels especially urgent to use this time to teach tweens and teens how to grow from hard experiences instead of letting those setbacks be the headline of their childhood.
Parents can find the balance between keeping their kids safe and toughening them up by asking themselves this question: Am I intervening because I know there is imminent, irreparable danger ahead? If yes, by all means, step in. Block the stranger trying to chat online. Sweep up the glass on the basketball court. Lock up the medication.
At the same time, unburden yourself from any shame, embarrassment, or pain you feel if your child is suffering from a setback or failure. You can’t help your child process what happened if you’re wallowing in defeat next to your child. Quietly remind yourself that making bad choices is no fun right now, but it’s what will help your child in the long run. We’ve all been there, and we’re all better off for it.
Michelle Icard is the author of several books on raising teens, including 8 Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success [Penguin Random House] available 8/22/23.