Fear of Failure in Children: How to Help Them

05 January, 2020
The fear of failure in children has to do with being self-demanding, family beliefs, and self-esteem. As parents, it's important to help our children face this issue the best way possible.

We often think children are afraid of taking tests when, in reality, there’s something else going on. In this article, we’ll tell you more about the fear of failure in children and how to keep this from becoming traumatic.

Fear of failure in children when facing exams

“My child’s terrified of going to school when he has a test. His stomach hurts, he can’t sleep, and he doesn’t want to eat breakfast.” Perhaps this situation sounds all too familiar and you suffer every time your child has a test. But why are children so afraid?

Fear of failure in children is much more common than you might think. Their emotional state has to do with anxiety, which is why they seem so worried, fearful and experience other negative feelings as well.

These feelings almost always come along with physical symptoms… headaches, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate, stomach ache, lack of appetite, or insomnia.

You probably wish you could understand why your child is so scared to take tests. Or, better said, when he or she is so afraid of failing or not going as well as expected.

Main reasons behind fear of failure in children:

1. Excessive demands – from themselves or others

The high level of demandingness that exists at home can have a major impact on a child’s academic experience… especially when it comes to tests. Many parents demand that their children get good grades. And when their children fail to meet these expectations, they become angry and apply punishments.

Perhaps parents don’t express this pressure explicitly. However, through certain comments, they make their children understand that, in order to be worthy of their parent’s approval, they must do well in school.

A child who failed a test.

This can lead children to be excessively demanding of themselves and afraid of failing. What’s more, they feel frustrated when they don’t get the grades they expected or desired.

2. Fear of letting others down

This second reason for a fear of failure in children goes hand in hand with the first. Many children become anxious about taking tests because they’re afraid of letting down their families. 

They fear they may not meet the expectations others have of them and that they may fail to fulfill their role among their siblings or classmates… For example, as the know-it-all.

3. Lack of self-esteem

Often, a lack of confidence in one’s own skills and abilities leads to poor performance and failure. Many, including children, can be very harsh judges of themselves, and this leads to fear and anxiety.

“This isn’t going to go well”, “I’m going to fail this test”, “I won’t know the answers”, “I didn’t study enough”… These are all phrases that resound in the minds of children with low self-esteem. And what are the consequences? Poor grades!

Fear of failure in children: How to help them

Some time has gone by once you start to notice your child’s fear of failure or, in other words, fear of doing poorly on tests. It’s fundamental that families work together to help their children overcome the issue the best way possible. Below are some recommendations:

1. Taking control of their own thoughts

Look for a way to detect the first negative thoughts and then how to change them into positive thoughts. Children can write these positive thoughts down on a piece of paper, using them as a sort of mantra. This exercise will help them talk to their parents about their fears. There are many options.

2. Confirmation of parental support

Many times, without even realizing it, we make comparisons regarding our kids“Why can’t you get good grades like your brother” or “Don’t fail like your sister did.” We may say these phrases in passing, but they remain engraved in the minds of our children.

Tell your children that it doesn’t matter what happens with their grades. You’ll be proud of them no matter what and you’ve seen how hard they study. We’re not saying that grades and exams aren’t important. Rather, we’re saying they’re not an issue of life or death.

3. Focus on other activities

Prior to an exam, your child may feel stressed, anxious, nervous… A good way to reduce these emotions is to turn your child’s attention to something fun. For example, go for a ride on your bikes or to the park, play a card game, sing, dance, etc.

A child feeling stressed about exams.

4. Accompany children every step of the way

Lastly, in order to prevent or reduce the fear of failure in children, it’s good for parents to be present during preparation. Set apart half an hour per day (at least) to help them with any information they’re struggling with.

Research, go over class notes, and make sure your child isn’t overlooking anything important. If you think it’s necessary, don’t hesitate to seek professional help – for example, from a psychologist.

Children can overcome their fear of failing tests if the entire family gets on board and helps them overcome it. Not only will you help your child perform better at school, but you’ll also strengthen family bonds by spending more time together.

Sender, R., Valles, A., Puig, O., Salamero, M., & Valdés, M. (2004). ¿Qué hay detrás del miedo a los exámenes? Educación Médica. https://doi.org/10.4321/S1575-18132004000100006