When adolescents want to quit

To quit or not to quit are important adolescent questions

Posted Apr 11, 2011

To the impulsive or unhappy adolescent, quitting can seem like a quick fix and sound simple -- the easy way out. However, it's really a very complicated choice, and parents need to help their son or daughter understand why.

What kinds of things might an adolescent want to quit? It might be a relationship, an interest, an activity, a class, a sport, a membership, an obligation, a goal, an effort, or a job.

Why quit? There are lots of reasons. If something gets too hard, becomes too boring, takes too long, is not what one expected, or is not worth the effort. Or if it's no longer enjoyable, or you change your mind, or it's causing discomfort, or it gets in the way of something else you want to do. For example, a young person decides to quite trying to get into a social group that keeps him out, and to find another group who want to be his friends.

Everyone encounters quitting points in their life. A quitting point is reached when we ask ourselves such questions as:
"Is it worthwhile to continue?"
"Should I stick with it?"
"Have I had enough?"
"What's the point?"
"Why keep trying?"

Confronting a degree of dissatisfaction regarding some casual or serious commitment we have made, we raise the issue of personal choice: "Should I persist or not?" However this question is answered, premature departures should be avoided. Encourage your teenager not to quit before taking the time to learn what leaving has to teach about what he or she is choosing to give up.

People who use quitting to cut and run often run right back into the same kind of circumstance or relationship that didn't work before. For example, the ambitious student who got in over in his head with too much content taught too fast transfers out of an advanced placement class that was too demanding. But later he blindly signs up for another and gets back into the same bind. The first time he blamed the driven nature of the teacher for causing him to quit, failing to learn it was really the accelerated nature of this type of class.

Quitting is far more complex than it first appears. In the heat of momentary impatience or unhappiness, it can seem like a good idea. However, it often risks unanticipated costs.

Quitting can provide relief from duress, but it can also cause regret over what was left behind. Quitting can create new freedom, but it can also sacrifice past investment. Quitting can stop what is unworkable, but it can also start a pattern of giving up when work gets hard.

To adolescents easily influenced by stern coaching authority, competitive athletics can communicate a strong bias against quitting. "Don't be a quitter." Why? "Because winners never quit, and quitters never win." "Because the more you quit the more you risk making quitting a habit." The "character building" student athletes are encouraged to learn is heavy on never letting up or giving up, sticking to it come what may. It's hard to argue against the dedication, motivation, and self-discipline ("tools for life") that many high school athletes are taught. But this wisdom of not quitting usually ignores the wisdom of knowing when to quit.

What would be some times that you would want your adolescent to have good quitting sense? When continuing to follow the group starts feeling wrong for your teenager. When a habit becomes self-defeating or self-destructive. When something enjoyable now must be sacrificed for something more worthwhile later on. When a relationship becomes destructive. When stopping for an injury rather than ignoring it and playing on. When forsaking childish ways in order to act more grown up.

There are important times when it takes determination or even courage to quit. In these situations, adolescents who can't quit, or have been taught never to quit, can be at a serious disadvantage. To stick with a bad decision because on principle you refuse to quit is rarely a good idea. Sometimes pride makes it hard to quit because that means admitting one has made a mistake. You want your teenager to have sense enough to quit when keeping at it becomes truly pointless, harmful, or keeps the young person from productively moving on.

Quitting choices should be taken seriously for several reasons. All quitting is quitting on your self. All quitting changes your life. All quitting brings a mix of gain and loss.

None of these reasons means that one should never quit, only that one should never take quitting lightly. Therefore, before your adolescent decides to quit, suggest delaying the decision until four ‘"quitting questions" have been asked and answered:
1)"By quitting what do I hope to get?"
2)"By quitting what do I give up?"
3)"By quitting what will I miss?"
4)"By quitting what might I later regret?"

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)  Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the transition to middle school.