“My ten year old acts as if he can't get himself out of bed in the morning even though he can and has for years. He gives up after minutes of attempting his homework. And he shies away from trying anything new. ”
“When I ask my five year old to pick up her belongings, she whines, drops what she is carrying, can't seem to put her things away, and ends up crying as if this was the hardest job in the world.”
“My 15 year old refuses to look for a job. They lie around the house, are absorbed in their phone and act as if I’m the worst parent for asking them to help around the house.”
“As the parent, I’ve tried everything and I don’t know what to do!”
In my Nov 3 column in Jackson Hole News & Guide I write about kids who shrink away from or avoid life’s tasks. If you have a child or teen like this, they may be operating from the mistaken goal of “avoidance” or “assumed inadequacy”. How you know if your child is operating from this goal rather than one of the other three mistaken goals (attention, power or revenge) is that you, the parent, feel helpless or hopeless. As much as you’ve tried you have no idea how to help this child overcome their fears of attempting the task in front of them.
Children like this are convinced of their own inadequacy and inability to succeed to the extent that they work to convince those around them of this too. They shrink, give up, refuse, retreat or complain. Their protests and lack of motivation can be so frustrating to parents that we end up giving up and often do the task for them – we enable and we rescue. Our children’s lack of belief in themselves eventually trickles over to our lack of belief in them (and sometimes it’s hard to know which came first).
As Vicki Hoefle says, what this child really believes is “I don’t believe I can, so I will convince others not to expect anything of me; I can't do anything right so I won’t try, and my failures won’t be so obvious.”
What these kids need is a sense of courage. And they may need our help to develop it. Read on to learn more!
Instill courage in kids who avoid life's tasks
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Do you have a child or teen who seems unable to complete any sort of reasonable task requested of her? This is a kid who acts as if he is incapable of anything – getting out of bed in the morning, attending to basic self care, putting his gear away or helping around the house – and melts down at the smallest of challenges. They never seem to know how to do their homework, shrink back from attempting anything out of their comfort zone or are afraid to try something new. They may lie on the couch, mope around the house or shut themselves in their rooms disengaging from life.
These are kids we may label as lazy, incapable, self-centered, unmotivated, entitled or disconnected. As parents we may feel helpless or hopeless. We may feel like after so many failed attempts to help there is nothing else we can do, so we give up. We have no idea how to get through to them.
When looking at children and teens like this through the lens of the mistaken goals, as introduced in my April 14, 2021 column, kids who appear to be helpless, feel inadequate and ask their parents to do even simple tasks for them are working from the mistaken goal of “avoidance” or “assumed inadequacy”. Children like this are convinced of their own inadequacy and inability to succeed to the extent that they work to convince those around them of this too. This inability to feel good enough leads them to avoid any and all tasks because they have convinced themselves that they will fail. Their fear of failure and of the world discovering their ineptitude is so strong that they protect themselves by not even trying.
What kids who avoid and feel inadequate need is a strong sense of courage, one of the Crucial C’s discussed in my Feb 24, 2021 column. They need our encouragement: a sense that we believe in them, see their value and that they belong. They need us to read behind their behavior and see that what they are really trying to say is, “Have faith in me. Help me develop courage. Don’t give up!” Afterall, as psychologists Amy Lew and Betty Lou Bettner say, their “failure to accomplish usually comes from a fear of failure, not laziness.”
Of course there may be other factors at play. Learning differences, depression and anxiety, social challenges, past and present trauma, self-perception, and having a fixed mindset can all play a role and may warrant professional help. These factors may all lead to or stem from experiences that kids see as presenting impossible obstacles that they feel incapable of surmounting. With this viewpoint, whether a child or teen is operating from the mistaken goal of assumed inadequacy or there are other factors at play, some of the solution may be the same.
These kids need strategies for building courage:
Encourage experiences where success is likely. Help your child or teen find areas where they can discover their abilities. Let them work at levels where they feel adequate. Divide larger tasks into smaller more manageable steps with benchmarks to indicate progress. With successes, your child may be more willing to try incrementally harder tasks.
Don’t buy in. Our kids need us to believe in them before they give us any reason to. Don’t buy into their helplessness, don’t enable and don’t rescue. Allow them to work through the challenges with support, and don’t do the job for them.
Take time for training. If the task is too daunting or beyond the child’s abilities, they need to be taught some skills. Use the four step approach of 1) do the job for the child, 2) do the job with the child’s help, 3) allow the child to do the job with your help as needed, and 4) send the child off to do the job independently.
Don't demand perfection. Acknowledge a job done even if it isn’t done perfectly to your standards. The more you pay attention to the positive rather than the negative, the more likely your child will want to continue doing the task.
Encourage. Recognize any effort or small improvement to all members of the family without singling out this child. Say things like, “I have faith you can figure this out. I’m here for support if you need it”. Or, “It seemed like your homework didn’t cause you too much trouble today. What made it easier?”
Allow for mistakes. The world is full of mistakes. Celebrate them. They are how we learn. Use Brene Brown’s idea of FFT (F’ing First Time) – normalize that we aren’t going to crush a new task the first time if we’ve never done it before.
Teach positive self talk and learn about a growth mindset. Listen to how this child talks to herself. Correct him if he uses negative statements about himself. Remind them that it’s just that they haven’t learned how to do this thing “yet”.
Hold limits where appropriate. This may sound counterintuitive, but if we overlook misbehavior we may be sending the message that we don’t think our kids can handle holding them responsible for their actions. Similarly, barring safety concerns, we don't want to rescue them from uncomfortable consequences of their actions. The idea is that we want to avoid giving debilitating help.
Children who are operating under the idea of assumed inadequacy need your support. Spend quality time with them, notice the positive, and avoid criticism. At the same time encourage opportunities for them to overcome challenges in incremental ways. Hold them accountable, allow for mistakes, and make sure they know you believe in them. Courage builds upon itself. Once we find success in one area it can translate to a whole host of others and open up a world of possibilities along the way.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!