4 Steps to Mastering the Fear Your Child Will Fail

The concept of letting our children fail is downright terrifying

We need to address our Icarusphobia.  

That’s right. I decided to create a new name for the phobia-of-letting-our-children-fail after realizing no one had bothered to create one.

I used the Greek story, Flight of Icarus, as my inspiration.  You know…the myth where the child ignores his father’s wise warnings, flies too close to the sun, melts his wax and feather wings, and plummets to his death in the sea?  

I thought that was pretty appropriate. 

I poured through the exhaustive, and often hysterical, list on http://phobialist.com and learned a few things.  I now recognize my son has been a long-time sufferer of Testophobia (Fear of taking tests) and, in a few years, I might develop Ephebiphobia (Fear of teenagers).  

But nothing to describe the gut-wrenching fear of letting our child fail, make a mistake, embarrass themselves, or worse, get a B. 

As a kid, no one did my homework for me, helped me with my college applications, or was overly concerned about where I was.  “Come back when the street lights come on,” was a familiar yell from many front porches in my neighborhood as we furiously pedaled away.  They certainly never called my boss to complain if I received a poor performance review like they do now. (Seriously. They do.)

But we certainly have a fear-of-letting-our-child-fail phobia now.

There are scores of experts who say that we need to wake up and address our Icarusphobia head on.  Madeline Levine, the author of Teach Your Children Well, says that “The malpractice of over-parenting,” impacts our children’s critical thinking skills, stress, anxiety, depression, and their sense of self.  In the documentary, The Race to Nowhere, business leaders complain that new hires often can’t cope or succeed without a mentor, constant reassurance, praise or rewards.

I know I’m not alone in finding this concept of letting our children fail downright terrifying.  Here’s the modern-day myth: If they fail, then people will talk about them…and us…in whispers behind our backs.  Our children will never get into college, live in our basements and everyone will see what impostors we are as parents. 

People can dish out advice all they like, but nothing will change unless we (I) overcome our (my) fear of letting our children take more risks and make mistakes. 

So, for fun, if we accept the premise that it’s a phobia, let’s address the cure like one. Thanks to Todd Farchione, Ph.D., Director of the Intensive Treatment Program at the Center for Anxiety, for providing the inspiration.

1.    Develop a “Fear Ladder” (or, in other words, “We Need to Get Some Perspective”)

List all the potential failures that your child could experience that might give you hives. Then rank these situations in order, based on the level of distress, discomfort, or hysteria you might feel.  

Drug use, drunk driving, and unprotected sex topped my list.  Not surprisingly, this put perspective on homework quality and completion. And music practice? Pfft.

2.  Challenge Your Thoughts (or, in other words, “What’s Truly the Worst Thing That Can Happen?)

This is related to the lower level items on your list that you’ve been stressing about, not the unprotected sex stuff.  I’m pretty sure you get a hall pass on freaking out about that.

Todd Farchione, Ph.D., says: 

“Ask yourself questions like: What evidence do I have for this fear or belief? What is the worst that could happen? How bad would that be? Work toward considering another alternative, less fearful outcomes…”


3.  Change Your Behavior (or, in other words, “Stop Hovering When You Don’t Have To”)

This is the most important step.  However, I’m going to reverse the usual advice because if you suffer from, say, Agrizoophobia (Fear of wild animals) the fear causes you to run away.  Instead, with Icarusphobia, our first instinct is to pounce straight on top of the poor child.  

For situations that are actually dangerous, this isn’t a problem. Pounce away. 

But for our more over-blown fears (like the fact that our child will be an utter failure unless they get into Harvard), we need to realize that our brain is incorrectly identifying them as dangerous.  

Here are the two key behavioral changes we need to try when feeling our inner Tiger Parent coiling up for an attack.

First, instead of creating a “systematic pattern of approach” to walk toward our spider to acclimate to it (Arachnophobia), we need to remove ourselves more and more from our child’s life where appropriate. 

I will still ask about grades and homework, (I can’t help it.  Maybe I should be writing about a 12 step program instead.) but I will try to resist interjecting anything else into the conversation other than praise on hard work and effort where deserved.    

Second, try to respond physically in a way that is different than what your fear prompts you to do. For instance, when I notice that I’m tensing my body, clenching my jaw…narrowing my eyes…I need to try to relax.  If you feel like you are at the breaking point during the conversation, walk away and collect yourself. 

4. Reward Yourself (or, in other words, “Have ‘Unproductive’ Fun!”) 

Overcoming a phobia is extremely hard work and, if you master it, you deserve to treat yourself as a pat on the back.  For instance, if you have aviophobia (fear of flying), and you master your fear, the experts suggest flying to some exotic locale.  

I think that a sweet mother-child lunch or mother-child baseball game could be super cool.  Something frivolous and fun that has nothing to do with getting ahead or college resume’ building.  It would help something far more important - relationship building.

They say that living with a phobia can keep us from living our life to our potential.  But perhaps, in this case, Icarusphobia inhibits our children from living to their potential. That includes growing into their own, individual, and flawed self that all grown-ups eventually become. 

By the way, I desperately want to meet people who suffer from Arachibutyrophobia (Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth) or Zemmiphobia (Fear of the great mole rat). 

I think that would put some perspective in my life.


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 Girls Leadership | Fear of Failure | Bravery | Self Confidence
 Girls Leadership | Fear of Failure | Bravery | Self Confidence
 Girls Leadership | Fear of Failure | Bravery | Self Confidence