'Failing Forward' Offers Invaluable Advice for Parents


The evening was filled with laughter and somber moments as Petitfils talked about working with teeangers in his home state of Louisiana who are dealing with anxiety and depression. The event, which drew a full house, was sponsored by Christ the King in collaboration with the St. John Fisher/Most Holy Redeemer Youth Ministry program. Earlier in the day, Petitfils met with CK students.


Petitfils began by sharing some disturbing trends to illustrate how adolescents and teenagers are hurting today:


  • One in four young people has a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder, a number that has more than doubled over the past decade.
  • An alarming number of young people are taking prescription medications.
  • One in four teenagers cuts, carves, or burns themselves.
  • Suicide among teenagers is at an all-time high.

According to Petitfils, children are dealing with record levels of anxiety and stress because of today’s parenting styles. In particular, when adults over parent, rescue their kids, and dangle carrots, they are creating a generation of young people who lack independence and intrinsic motivation. 


Diving deeper, he pointed to several factors that are hurting young people today: 


Undefined Success—There are other metrics for success besides academic or extracurricular achievement. Students often don’t realize the importance of effort and dedication to reach a goal.

Less Play—Free and unstructured play is a miracle drug for anxiety, Petitfils said. However, most adolescents and teens are tied to electronic devices. They rarely just play.  

Lack of Failure—Overprotective parents keep children from learning how to respond—and move on—when things don’t go their way.

More Options for Avoidance—When students skip class, fail to do their homework, or avoid studying for a test, their anxiety levels go up. And so does the chance that they will become depressed. 

Over Reliance on External Motivators—Dangling carrots, such as money for grades, weakens students’ intrinsic desire to learn.

Lack of Resilience—Young people who don’t learn to take personal responsibility for themselves can be easily traumatized.


Petitfils cited a number of reasons why parents are resistant to changing their behavior. Often, they are just trying to do a better job than their own parents did. Adults who are divorced may be parenting from guilt. Some, especially overprotective mothers, may want to feel needed by their kids. And so on.


“Our job is not to raise children. It’s to raise adults,” Petitfils said. “But when we over parent, we create more of a dependence. . . . It’s a vicious cycle—overparenting leads to dependence, which leads to low self esteem and efficacy. Which leads to toxic stress, anxiety, and depression. Which leads [back] to dependence.””


He encouraged the audience not to judge themselves, but to try new parenting practices because the prevalent ones are doing more harm than good. 


He offered the following remedies for parents who want to change their parenting style.

  1. Encourage and allow safe failures, or goals that young people set for themselves.
  2. Redefine success as achievement plus contribution.
  3. Encourage communication! Find opportunities to talk and exchange ideas.
  4. Listen to your children. It’s the most underrated superpower in the world! Make sure your children feel heard.
  5. Challenge their stress avoidance in a respectful way that leads them to develop  alternatives for handling the situation. 
  6. Encourage them to face their fears so that they can choose safe failures in age-appropriate ways.
  7. Don’t bring homework, food, or other forgotten items to school for your child.
  8. Don’t ‘bark’ at a teacher—unless it is absolutely necessary.
  9. Ask your child before you intervene in school or extra-curricular matters. Don’t force your help if it’s not wanted.
  10. Don’t let your emotional stability be attached to your child’s behavior.
  11. Provide structure, rules, and logical consequences, as opposed to emotional or  relational ones.
  12. Don’t let your children use phones in their rooms as alarm clocks. Teach them how to use a real alarm clock and wake themselves up.

Petitfils said that students’ problem solving abilities grow exponentially when they feel heard. In most cases, they would rather learn how to fix their own problems rather than have someone swoop in. 


“What young people most deeply want,” Petitfils said, “is to be responsible and independent.”


Additional Resources:
Helping Teens with Stress, Anxiety, and Depression by Roy Petitfils 

TEDx Talks with Roy Petitfils, October 2016

The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.