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5 Tips to Cope with Your Child’s Failure

by Janine Basel

Student and Matric failures are a reality, especially in South Africa. Read on to see how best to deal with this as a parent.

When one of my children failed a course at university, I felt as if I was lost at sea. Questions came rushing up. Did my child have the wherewithal to do the degree he had chosen? Was he working? Would he be able to stay on in the specific degree? So many more questions and doubts came flooding in.

According to Dr Ian Scott, CHE task team member and emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town, the drop out rate during the tertiary education duration is 55%, and the latest statistics for failed matrics is 224 000. This equates to a huge number of people dealing with failure at any given time in a year in South Africa.

As a parent of a failed matric learner, or a student at university, you are not alone in facing this. Although we try to separate ourselves from our children’s failures, the truth is we feel this failure just as keenly. The emotional and financial implications can be overwhelming and yet the subject is often taboo between parents, like a shameful secret.

The first and most important thing to remember is that you are still the biggest emotional influence in your child’s life, and your reaction will be closely monitored. Overall your child will be well aware of your disappointment and you will need to take care.
Depression and suicide are very real concerns. In fact, my one son jocularly tells of a certain course he did in second semester at university where the suicide rate was higher than the percentage pass rate. A light tone on a very serious subject.

Dealing with Failure

Watch your child closely. You will probably have a number of conflicting feelings: loss, anxiety, depression, anger and more. Although I am no psychologist or counsellor, I have lived through my own fair share of failures and have a good common sense approach for you. This is a very helpful website if you are concerned about your child’s psychological state.

Here are some valid points to keep in mind:

1. This is just a hiccup, and not the end of a path.

Allow you (and of course your child) to express disappointment at failure and in some sense mourn the loss of the immediate dream. Don’t dwell too long as its easy to fall into a victim state of mind. For my son, this was a first time at any sort of failure. He had sailed through his schooling career, sailed through his Drivers License which is often a first stumbling block for teenagers, and so it was a shock not only for him to fail a course in his first semester, but for me as his mother. The important thing to do here is to look at the big picture, perhaps this will put it into context.

2) Allow your child to pass through this phase with dignity.

Vanity does not allow us to shout this from the rooftops, but it is not a shameful secret. However, having said this, remember it is not your place to be spreading this news. It is your child’s decision as to who he wants to tell.
My experience is that parents do not discuss failures of their children between themselves and thus their support structure is not used. I have spoken with many parents who suspect someone’s child has not got through a course, or graduated or matriculated, and I feel the lack of discussion tends to foster a sense of shamefulness.

3) Nothing constructive can come out of finger pointing and blaming.

Listen to your child and remember you are a supportive mechanism in their lives and no longer the leader. Finances are often a first concern as a parent, yet there are so many alternative ways to deal with this, and your child will be well aware of any sacrifices you have made to date. Therefore there really is little need to dwell on this point. Take a look at our Finance your Studies section for funding tips.

4) Get a plan of action.

Discuss the way forward. There are many options for your child and hope is not lost. Have a look at this great article for matrics on what to do at this stage, if they have failed or if their marks are simply not good enough for their intended tertiary studies.

For university students, most times students can repeat a course, or if they have been excluded from a course for not doing well enough overall. Try writing a motivational letter to the Department concerned, or look at other viable ways back into the same course e.g. changing to a BSc if excluded from a Medical degree with the view of doing better and requesting to get back to the original degree of choice.

You need to be creative in your problem solving and see this as an exercise where you are working as a team to get back on track. My husband and I chatted with our son to see if he was still focused on his degree or not, and he found out that he could do a Summer School programme, which is offered to students who fail a course by a certain small percentage. Thereafter he signed up for the summer programme. So all was not lost!

5) Implement follow up conversations.

Once a plan of action is in place, it is worth a couple of follow up conversations to ascertain what went wrong, in order for the same mistakes not to be repeated again. It is also a great idea to discuss other options to ensure your child is on the right path for him/her.
In regard to student failures, one common thread in failing is assuming a course is easy, whereas consistent work is still required. Read student experiences on different qualifications here.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that you should act quickly to move forward with a plan. Focus on your own strong points, encourage your child to acknowledge his strong points, and have realistic expectations for the way forward.

This is a great learning experience for everyone. Use this opportunity to foster good learning habits in your child, use creative problem solving skills as a team, and teach them how to be a good example of tenacity.

EduConnect 2cents

We all have our own journey to follow but remember that you are not an alone parent in the wilderness facing a child’s failure. This can be an exercise in humility! So keep your head up, and in the words of Nelson Mandela:

‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.’

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