Conquering a defeatist attitude

When your child gives up too easily ...
When your child gives up too easily ... Photo: Getty Images

How do you help your child when they refuse to try new things out of a fear of failure?

Parents often catch themselves swooping in to provide positive, life affirming words of encouragement when they hear the ‘I can’t do it’ line from their kids. Fast breathing, worrisome thoughts or the refusal to try new things are all symptoms of childhood anxiety and the more complex ones, like shifting the way kids view themselves (and their willingness to tackle new skills) can take time to unpack. Parents might be left wondering how much power they have to change their children’s opinions of themselves, so what can they do to provide that space for trying new things without the sugar-coated praise?

Louise Hayes is a clinical psychologist and author of Get out of your mind and in to your life; a guide to living an extraordinary life for teens and parents. She explores ways that parents can pop a wedge in those circles of thought when our children refuse to see an alternative to who they think they are.

"As a parent it is common for us to respond to our child's not good enough stories with a positive statement. We might say something like, 'of course you are', however, we know from the research that this doesn't always help, it doesn't make our not good enough story less believable," explains Louise.

Lisa has had this experience with her primary school aged daughter. Her daughter protests on a regular basis about not being able to put on her shoes, or being able to brush her teeth despite clearly having the skill set. "It’s frustrating ... because approaching her thoughts of 'I can’t do it' with 'of course you can' doesn’t always work."

The story, in her daughter’s mind, of who she is and what she’s capable of doing also extends to trying things out at school, where she thinks there is a risk involved. "She’ll often flatly refuse and I often wonder if she watches all the help her younger siblings get and desires what she thinks is my attention and time," Lisa says. The possibility of a negative outcome almost paralyses. "It is very hard to watch her creating a negative reality which doesn’t exist. It is worrying to think of her, at seven, already letting negative thoughts dominate her outlook on the world. It is extremely challenging as a parent to know how to help her. To see her holding herself back from experiences and people because she is wrongly thinking that she can’t do something." So what can Lisa do?

Louise’s expertise is in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a form of Cognitive Behavioural therapy. She finds it's best to acknowledge that the human mind does give us these stories, and that these stories have a role in helping us to work at things and get better at them. "A parent might say something like, 'yes, our minds are pretty good at noticing how we compare to other people, my mind does that too!'" suggests Louise. It’s an attempt to normalize the ways those stories exist in all of our minds – as parents and children. She finds that it works well for some parents to give their kids an example of how their mind also does that, for example you might say, 'I sometimes notice that at work, when I have a new project to do I often feel like it is too hard'. The purpose of sharing some of the inner workings of a mum or dad's mind is what’s at the core of the work Louise does with families – about teaching children about the value of giving something a go and that to learn something new doesn’t necessarily mean they have to succeed at it straight away.

The reality is, if we strip away what’s at the core of the stories that sit within all of us, as adults and as children, there will always be an ‘I’m not good enough’ story. Making space to find new stories where there might be a chance to think about ourselves differently might give our kids room to grow, at their own pace, without us propping them up all the time when we hear a story that’s hard to listen to. It may not be about climbing Everest but the possibility to try new things, where failure is a very real option, can lay the foundations for living a rich and meaningful life.

What stories do you notice your kids have in their little heads, how do you respond to them?