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By Holly Bennett

"I Quit": The Discouraged Child

Help your child cope with frustration

"Teach me to skip," your six-year-old daughter asks. She’s been watching the big girls at school, and it looks like fun.

So you enlist your husband to hold the other end of the rope, head out to the sidewalk, and start the same ritual your mom used with you.


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Of course she jumps too late at first. Everyone does. But after four tries, she’s had enough. "I don’t want to do this anymore."

The next day you offer to continue. "No, I don’t like it."

Why is she so easily discouraged? And how do parents help children who give up too easily to develop more perseverance?

While a low tolerance for frustration, or perfectionism that leads to fear of failure, can be an innate trait, Ottawa family educator Betsy Mann says today’s society does not exactly encourage the development of patience. “Things happen very quickly in our society. TV and computers give a quick rhythm of stimulation. And we are rushed, as parents. We don’t have time in the morning to let kids practise tying their shoes, so we do it for them. Yet kids need to learn that some things — and skills in particular — take time and practice.”

Lea Tufford, a marriage and family therapist in Georgetown, Ont., adds an important caveat: Sometimes quitting is appropriate. “Parents need to make sure that the activity the child is involved in is not actually beyond the child’s current development.” For example, a child who has the physical ability to play in a competitive sports league may not yet have developed the emotional maturity to handle it. And kids who are overscheduled may need more downtime: “A six-year-old who has just transitioned from half days to full days at school may be just too tired for after-school activities.”

That said, Tufford and Mann have many suggestions for helping children learn the value of the old saying, “Try and try again.” Read on for more.

Model perseverance and coping strategies. When you get stumped by your income tax, talk about it: “This is really hard. I’m having trouble sorting it out, but I’m sure if I just take my time and break it into little pieces, I’ll get through it.” Really frustrated? Model “coming back later,” says Mann. “I’ve had enough of this for now. I’m going to take a break, and try it again later when I’m fresh.”

Listen and ask questions. Kids can be discouraged and want to quit for many reasons. Help your child figure out what is wrong, whether it’s discouragement at slow progress, a bully spoiling the fun, or simply not enjoying the activity.

Help them recognize that nervousness or frustration is a normal part of learning. Knots in the stomach is not a pleasant feeling, but understanding that it’s a normal reaction to a new or frustrating situation is the first step to learning to deal with it. Then, says Tufford, you can help your child discover strategies for relieving those feelings, perhaps with a brief break, some slow deep breathing or asking the instructor for help.

Focus on effort rather than results. Saying “You worked really hard on that assignment” encourages persistence and learning; “You’re so good at geography” doesn’t.

Make it OK to fail. Fear of failure leads kids to give up when success is not assured. Treat failure, in your life and theirs, as a learning experience, not a disaster. Also let them see that you don’t have to be great at something to enjoy it: “I’m not that good at bowling, but it’s really fun.”

Teach yourself to cope with your child’s frustration. It’s hard to see your child frustrated and upset, says Mann, but it’s not up to you to always fix it. “The child who isn’t reacting well to not being able to catch the ball is in distress. If he thinks his parents are as well, it makes it worse. Don’t run to the rescue just because it’s uncomfortable for you.”

If your child does well on a test or scores a goal in a hockey game, of course you’re going to praise him — but if your focus is too often on his achievement or abilities, he may not get the right message. Why not? A fascinating experiment by Carol Dweck at Columbia University in New York shows what happens when kids are praised for either their efforts or their intelligence.

Dweck had a group of fifth-grade kids do a series of puzzles — puzzles easy enough that they could all do them well. When they were done, the kids were told either “You must be smart at this,” or “You must have worked really hard.”

The effects of this single comment were remarkable. In subsequent tests, the kids praised for their effort chose to tackle a harder set of puzzles rather than another easy set. When given a task that was two years beyond their grade level, they worked hard and enjoyed the challenge, even when they didn’t succeed. And in a final test at the same level as the first, they improved their score by 30 per cent.

What about the kids who were told they were smart? They declined to take the harder test, choosing instead the easy test that guaranteed them a good score. They became discouraged and upset during the too-hard test, and when retested at the original level, their score declined by 20 per cent.

Dweck’s conclusion: “When we praise kids for their intelligence, we tell them this is the name of the game. Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.” By contrast, she says, “emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control.”

Information is current as of the original date of publication.

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