Dear Dr Justin,
My six year-old gives up on everything. I ask him to tidy his room and he says “I can’t”. I enrol him in swimming lessons and soccer and when things get hard he says “I can’t.” I tell him to do his homework and he cries and tells me he can’t. It seems like he feels like he can’t do anything. He feels hopeless. I feel helpless. What do I do?
Dr Justin responds:
In the front of my new book about resilience 9 Ways to a Resilient Child, I have included a quote that seems perfect for your son:
When life puts you in a tight spot, don’t ask, ‘Why me?’ Instead, stand tall and say, ‘Try me!’
Wouldn’t it be fabulous if our children were more resilient, and approached the tough stuff in life with a more “go-get-‘em” attitude? We can help our children be more resilient in a number of ways.
Here are some ideas for developing resilience:
Can’t means don’t want to
Children often feel hopeless. We ask them to do things that are big and challenging – at least for them. When your son tells you that he can’t do something, try the following:
- Teach him the power of the word “yet”. If he says he can’t do something, it’s only that he can’t do it “yet”. He needs to practice. He needs some help. But eventually he’ll be able to figure it out.
- When he tells you he can’t do something, ask him, “Well, what can you do?” Help him take on challenges one small bite at a time. Help him identify options.
- A little bit of tough love can sometimes work – so long as you’re gentle. Help him understand that ‘can’t means don’t want to’, and then ask if he wants to. Often saying ‘can’t’ is an excuse to hide the truth that a child is afraid or worried about something.
There’s no such thing as smart
Teach your children there is no such thing as smart or dumb. Instead there are people who keep on trying to learn new things, and people who do not. Of course, this is not entirely true.
There probably are limits to what we are each capable of achieving, but we don’t want to be the one who puts limits on our child by telling him, ‘I don’t think you’re really smart enough to be a vet, or a doctor, or that you’re talented enough to be a sports star, or coordinated enough to play drums or be a hairdresser.’ Children go further with a growth mindset (where they believe they can work things out with help) than they will with a fixed mindset (where there’s only so much ability or capacity).
Help him use his strengths
Do you know your son’s strengths? Does he? Helping him to identify and use his strengths builds wellbeing, increases engagement, improves productivity, and makes people more resilient. Our children feel strong when they use their strengths. And they achieve more because using those strengths comes naturally to them. Young people need to know what they are, be able to identify them, and work out how to use them in order to get the benefits. Practise spotting strengths in your family members and give them opportunities to use these strengths, and their resilience will increase.
Build the relationship
One-on-one, parent-to-child, is where the real work of building a resilient child and family is done. We build resilience in the minute-by-minute micro-interactions we have with our children where we tap into their lives and shore up their confidence and feelings of worth.
While we are doing chores, tucking them in to bed, bathing them, sharing a meal, driving to preschool (or big school), listening to them practise the piano or helping them with their homework, our investment in making our relationship with our children right forms their feelings of worth, experiences of success, and opportunities to grow in capacity, competence, confidence and resilience. Make time for your son, and be with him. Give her freedom where he needs it, but make sure you’re available when he needs you.
I’ve recently written a book about resilience that has many more tips and ideas that can help. 9 Ways to a Resilient Child is now available from your favourite bookstore.
More info here