Failure: the Painful, Universal, and Essential Experience

Goalie mourns scored goal, covering face with handsFailure is never easy, especially when it pertains to the areas of life one is invested in. At the same time, it is an essential experience, as it can teach important lessons that cannot be learned in any other way. Many professions accept failure as an important component of growth. From science to business to sports, much has been written about the importance of failing.

When it comes to children and teens, failure is far less easy to accept. Expectations for what children should achieve are higher than ever before. The application process for K-12 private schools in New York City is nearly as competitive and strenuous as the college application process was 20 years ago. Children are not only expected to get straight As from an early age, they are also often saddled with a full schedule of extracurricular activities as well. Anything less is often seen as unacceptable.

This added pressure may come with a steep price, especially as children move into later adolescence and college years. Suicide among people ages 15 to 24 has increased by 16% over the past six years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. College counseling centers have seen a precipitous climb in demand, and almost half of the students seen in these settings are diagnosed with severe psychological disorders, an increase of 13% over two years.

Are all of these developments directly related to difficulty with failure? While the answer is not entirely clear, it does make sense that the added pressure of getting into exclusive schools and standing out from the crowd has made children and parents more anxious. Because the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer, failure may feel more devastating and painful than it once did.

To help illustrate how high expectations can cause undue amounts of stress and feelings of inadequacy, I would like to discuss a person I work with who I will refer to as Stanley (not his real name).

As the only boy in the family, Stanley was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a highly successful surgeon. Report card days were the most stressful, as anything less than an A was met with disapproval and shame. The few times he got an A- or B+ (which happened rarely), he was silently admonished and treated as if he had let the entire family down.

To avoid this experience, Stanley would lock himself in his room with his books. Unlike many of his friends who had strong relationships at school, Stanley was mostly isolated. While he was able to achieve a high level academically, he felt troubled on the inside. Deep down, he knew he didn’t want to follow his father’s career path, but he was afraid to admit that to anyone, even himself.

Because the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer, failure may feel more devastating and painful than it once did.

Stanley’s world turned upside down when he went to college. His good grades got him into a top school, but early in his time there he became deeply depressed. His inexperience making friends made it hard for him to connect with others, and simultaneously, he began to realize that the medical field in general was not for him. He quickly lost all motivation to go to class, and his grades suffered. He was suddenly on the verge of failing, which sent his parents into a panic.

It was at this time I met Stanley. The new experience of failure was front and center in our discussions. It seemed as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Not only did he feel his life was in shambles, but that he had disappointed his family.

As the feelings that were coming up were processed more, his true self began to emerge. Eventually, he was able to admit to himself that he did not want to become a doctor, and he started to consider other areas of study that perked his curiosity and interest. In time, he realized that technology fascinated him, and a new direction in life opened up.

Because Stanley was allowed to struggle and process the feelings associated with that struggle in therapy, he came to know himself in a deeper way. While it certainly was not easy, this experience provided him with valuable insight, and when the dust settled, he had become a stronger and more resilient person. Eventually, he was able to build a life that felt like his own for the first time, and he came out the other side with more confidence.

Stanley’s story is living proof of the old saying, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Failure is an essential process everyone—young people especially—must go through. As long as young people and their parents are able to process the difficult feelings failure brings up, whether with each other or in therapy, powerful and long-lasting lessons can be learned.


  1. Lehrer, J. (2009). Accepting Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Wired. Retrieved from
  2. Scelfo, J. (2015). Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. The New York Times. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by James Wells, LCSW, Child and Adolescent Issues Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Caroline

    December 21st, 2015 at 4:20 PM

    We have all failed at something at some point in our lives. You know, you just have to dust yourself off and keep going, there is a lesson there for you to learn if you determine that you will take the time to look for that lesson instead of letting yourself drown in the misery of the failure.

  • Freddy

    December 22nd, 2015 at 2:35 PM

    I don’t want my kids or any friends to fail at anything- but I do know that toughing your way through it makes you a better person

  • mark

    December 25th, 2015 at 8:53 AM

    I think that there are a lot of millennial kids who are afraid to fail at something because they have never had to. There has always been someone there to pick them up and keep them going even when it wasn’t by something that they did, but help from others. I am all for having people in your life that you can depend on to help you but there does come a time when you have to learn to do it on your own too. I think that the really good parents out there know that and they will let you fail and then start to help you back up again when they know that the time is right and that there is something valuable to be learned form it.

  • Juliette

    December 26th, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    To find true meaning you sometimes have to hurt a little bit

  • Blaine

    December 27th, 2015 at 8:40 AM

    Juliette I agree with you 100%! I don’t think that you can ever learn who you are and how strong you are or maybe aren’t until you have lived with a big experience in your life that you have failed at.
    I don’t wish this necessarily on anyone, but at the same time I think that we all know that there were those defining experiences in our lives where we did not succeed in the beginning but that as a result of living it it made us stronger in the end.
    Everyone should have a defining experience like that in their lives at some point, I think that it can teach you a great deal about who you are.

  • Di

    December 28th, 2015 at 3:17 PM

    Surely I am not the only person who does not see the value of getting hurt? I feel like if you get hurt and fail then this makes you less likely to get up and try again. Everyone wants to see that they are gaining success, not falling down all of the time!

  • Burt

    December 29th, 2015 at 4:10 PM

    Well I do have to say that it could be the one common thing in all of our lives. We may not all know happiness but it is almost assured that we have all known some sort of failure and pain at some point in our lives.

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