Allowing Adolescents to Make Mistakes – Part I

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Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

We all make mistakes. If you’re like me, just within the realm of parenting, you’ve made a ton of mistakes in your quest to be a loving and conscientious parent.

I sometimes jokingly say that I did my best parenting before I actually had children. Before I had children I said I was never going to do certain things I saw other parents with their kids. But when I actually got to the real-life crossroad of those decisions, I wasn’t always as smart or wise as I hoped I would be.


So, even though we are focusing on helping our teens with their mistakes, I think a good starting point is for us to remember that we are just as prone to make mistakes as our teens.

Not only does that awareness help us stay grounded but we’re also more likely to extend grace, patience and compassion to our children for their mistakes if we are mindful of our own.

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And the good news is that most of the mistakes we make are not fatal if we also work toward repair when we do blow it.

It’s easy to assume that mistakes are all about the external consequences (disobedience, rebellion, defiance). But, how our teens perceive their own mistakes is critically important for s as parents to understand.

How children learn about mistakes

The primary job of early childhood (ages 3-6) is learning new tasks. These simple tasks, such as building with blocks, eating with a utensil, putting on clothes, learning to ride a bike, reading, writing, etc. are the foundation for all the learned behaviors that follow.

Each task that is learned builds a sense of competency for that task and those that follow. As they practice these skills, confidence grows. The child can then leverage that sense of competency to learn increasingly more complex tasks.

The way a young child learns to do those tasks is try it. They don’t think about making mistakes or succeeding or failing when they are young because they are more interested in learning. Positive and negative influence

If the child gets lots of encouragement and affirmation for their efforts, the child wants to continue engaging with the task. They continue to expand, explore and grow.

If the child is made to feel badly about their efforts due to ridicule or criticism, there is a resulting sense of shame. Shame is feeling badly – not about the task, but about their self. They are then less likely to take new risks.

As the child gets older (ages 6-12) the primary goal is to begin mastering more complex tasks. The only way a child can do this is through repetitive practice. Think about how a child learns more challenging tasks such as multiplication tables, playing an instrument, or reading books with expanded vocabularies. This is the stage when many children start to associate difficult tasks with failure. They assume that adversity is a sign of incompetence or lack of intelligence. Their perception of their ability is being shaped in a significant way.

If they perceive their mistakes as a natural progression of learning (practicing) they are likely to build resilience and a healthy self-concept that will keep them growing.

If they perceive their mistakes as a symptom of their inadequacy, they are likely to feel poorly about themselves and take fewer risks. So, growth and confidence begin to slow.

The role of perception

By the time a child gets to the teen years, their perception of their abilities is well established and greatly affects how they approach life.

The primary task of adolescence is centered around relationships – forming an identity with self and others. Do they fit in? Are they appealing to others? Are they good at anything that would help them stand out from the crowd?

The previous tasks learned in early childhood and grade school become of critical importance not just from a performance perspective but about whether they have learned to persevere and have built some resilience when they encounter adversity.

And social relationships (parents, peers, dating, coaches, teachers) in the teen years require a great deal of resilience. A teen’s perception of their abilities in the social realm is a huge factor in how they interpret and respond to their mistakes.


The term self-efficacy simply describes a person’s perception of their own abilities. If a teen has low self-efficacy, they generally feel as though their ability to accomplish a particular task or persevere through a task is poor.

If their self-efficacy is high, they usually believe that they can accomplish what they set their minds on and intuitively understand that to master this task it will take multiple attempts. For example, students in school who get constructive feedback from their teacher can either perceive these comments as helpful in order to improve or as criticism.

Though a teen’s actual ability may be high, their perception of themselves usually determines how much effort they will exert. In other words, if they don’t perceive they can do something or do it well, they often will not even try.

You can see how this low self-efficacy can negatively influence their interpretation of their efforts and perceive themselves as failures. Mistakes then become almost expected and when they occur their sense of self-worth goes way down.

They are unhappy with themselves and this usually manifests in one of two different ways.

1. They turn their shame in on themselves and sabotage their own efforts and opportunities. They assume they are incompetent/losers.

2. They turn it outward and blame others. They justify their anger and rebellion in irrational ways.

But, in both cases, the core issue is their low self-efficacy.

But, as parents, if we don’t try to understand what might be going on inside of them – the confusion, the self-doubt, the struggle with identity, etc. we will place too much emphasis on correcting their mistakes instead of trying to help them make sense of their mistakes.

The idea is to be tune in to your teen’s self-efficacy and learn to respond in a way that allows them to make the necessary mistakes and see this as practice and not failure. This is what we cover in part two of this topic on Friday.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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