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The Discouraged Child

Discouraged children and teens grow to be discouraged adults. How to help.

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Ben’s mom can see it coming. Ben is struggling with his math homework and she can hear his grumbling, his “This is stupid” comments, which rapidly turn into “I can’t do this!” Before she is able to say something to help him calm down, he throws his pencil on the table, and stomps off to his room.

Frustration is part of life, and for children and teens, who are always on the uphill in terms of mastering new skills, frustration can easily fill a good portion of their day. But when frustration doesn’t lead to success but instead a continual sense of failure, and to make it worse, criticism from adults, the child or teen becomes discouraged; his self-esteem can take a serious and sometimes, irreparable hit.

The discouraged child tries to cope in many different ways. Here are the most common ones:

"I can’t, I give up!" This is what Ben is doing in the moment by his stomping off to his room. Once he calms down, and with his mother’s support, he can learn to work through his frustration and complete his homework. But for children and teens who don’t have this experience, who are struggling essentially on their own, they understandably conclude that they are stupid, a loser, that they can’t learn; they give up trying.

And with each shrug of their shoulders and their putting down the pencil, not only do those frustration-circuits in their brains get ever stronger, their tolerance for frustration ever smaller, they create a self-fulfilling prophesy — their “I can’t do so I don’t do”-approach often leads to a criticism by the adults around them, confirming their own distorted view of themselves, and fueling depression. This is particularly easy to happen for children who have an undiagnosed and untreated learning disability or attention-deficit disorder (AD/HD).

"I don’t want to!" As they get older some children shift from the I can’t to I don’t want to. Here you find children and teens who can get by by doing the minimal school work required, but balk at the notion of taking more advanced courses, joining a soccer team, even though they enjoy the game, or trying out for the school play. Their I don’t want to really means I can’t.

Such children and teens are taking the giving-up way of coping with frustration and failure to a broader, more face-saving level. Because they have learned to expect frustration and failure, they avoid what seems the inevitable by cutting anxiety-provoking situations off at the pass. As they adopt this stance over and over, their tolerance for anxiety and risk decreases, and their comfort zone and world become smaller and smaller.

"You can’t make me!" This is the child or teen who feels he has nothing to lose, that it’s him against the world and that his only power is in resistance to the adults around him. The child is oppositional, and parents are frustrated because whatever limits or consequences or punishments they impose in an effort to motivate the child goes nowhere. The child either is always actively pushing back, or takes a passive-aggressive, “whatever” attitude to any attempt to move him.

How to help

It’s all too easy for the adults in such children and teen’s lives to become focused on the what the child is not doing, to become frustrated themselves when their wish for the child’s success is only met with passive or active resistance. To break this cycle of negative behaviors, adults need to approach the problem from several directions. Some suggestions:

Help the child or teen learn to regulate her emotions. This is where Ben’s mom ideally steps in when she hears Ben’s first grumbling noises and either offers to help or suggests that he take a break by helping her with dinner. By catching Ben’s frustration before he gets too overwhelmed and frustrated, Ben can over time begin to monitor his own emotional state. By teaching him to regulate his emotions by having him take a break or do some deep breathing, she is teaching him tools that he can then begin to apply on his own.

But the focus needn’t be just on frustration, but any spikes in emotions — anger, anxiety, or disappointment, for example. The skills are still the same, that of helping the child recognize and calm herself.

Provide support to work through the frustration. After Ben’s mom helps him calm down, she can now help him work through the actual math problems by breaking them down step-by-step, making sure he is in lockstep with her as they together move through the process. This is the side-line coaching that everyone needs when tackling something new. The goal is not only to solve the math problem, but more importantly to teach Ben how to think through difficult challenges, how to break big problems down into smaller, more manageable bits, and create with him a success experience. This is what will build his self-esteem and stop him from giving up on himself.

Encourage risk-taking overall. At some base level, self-esteem is best increased by surviving near-death experiences. Think Outward Bound programs where teens are challenged to try to high-ropes courses or live by themselves in the woods for a couple of days. With adult and peer support, they discover they can do more than they imagined. They return home empowered.

But this approach can be applied to even the youngest of children. The 3 or 4-year-old can be challenged and supported to climb up the bigger slide in the playground, or cross a small creek by stepping on the rocks. For an older child it may be signing up for that soccer team, or for a teen trying out for the school play. As a parent you initiate, encourage any wisps of interest, and provide support along the way.

Avoid criticism. And avoid being critical. While feedback on performance and outcome is obviously an important aspect of improving skills, done too often, too harshly to a discouraged child who is already self-critical is only adding fuel to the fire. The focus instead needs to be on the trying, perseverance, emotional regulation, and these need to be rewarded with positive feedback and encouragement. The rule-of-thumb with all children and teens is to get excited about the positive and be matter-of-fact about the negative.

Lower your own too-high expectations. If the way out of discouragement is success, it’s up to the adults create opportunities that provide exactly that. Expectations that are too high will trigger the I-don’t-want-to-I-can’t response. Raise the bar slowly.

Evaluate for any underlying learning problems. If there is a family history of AD/HD, if you see your child is struggling in particular areas, it may be time to have the child evaluated. With medication, skill-training the child can learn to override his disability. More importantly, your knowing why your child is struggling will help you be less frustrated more supportive.

Use carrots instead of sticks. The oppositional child or teen is in a power struggle with the world and no heaping on of punishment is likely to work. Instead of sticks, you need to shift to carrots and reward any exceptions to his negativity. And if you do, expect little response. The child or teen is likely to be suspicious and shrug off your positive feedback. That’s fine, just keep it up.

Provide one-on-one attention. In many families the Bens become the family problem, the child who is always blowing up or screwing up compared to his sibs. The danger here is that this becomes solidified into the child’s family role. Rather than competing with sibs for positive attention, he settles on getting only negative attention, which is better than no attention at all.

The antidote to this stance is to provide quality one-on-one attention on a regular basis. The key here is to allow the child or teen to decide what the child and parent will do together. For a young child it may be reading a book she picks out or playing with Legos; for a teen doing a Saturday trip to the mall. Let the child set the pace and direction, resist the temptation to take-over or be critical. By doing this you are giving the child or teen a positive sense of control; you are providing an experience in being proactive, rather than always reactive.

Consider counseling. A play therapist can help your child learn to work through frustrations in therapy; a teen may welcome a caring adult outside the family who can help her untangle her emotions and understand her struggles.

Have the conversation. Finally, you want to bring your child or teen in as an active and knowledgeable player in your efforts to help him change his self-image and turn things around. Have the larger conversation not about math homework but about your worry and concern — that he is so easily frustrated, that she seems to struggle and you want to know how to help, that you feel he misses out on opportunities for new exciting experiences, that you know she is angry and you want both of you to get along better.

And then see what he says. He may have suggestions or say nothing or little. That’s okay, you’ve gotten the problem on the table. Now press ahead with the other steps.

Discouraged children and teens grow up to become discouraged adults who not only struggle, but miss the opportunities that life, that their lives, can offer. You can help them become the most they can be.

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