What to do when your child refuses to try new things or gives up when things get tough

My daughter was getting really good at doing backflips on the trampoline, and then one day after practicing for a while and messing up a few times, she said “I don’t want to do backflips anymore” and then stormed up to her room. My husband came back into the house, irritated that my daughter, again had given up.

Wanting to quit hard things is a common occurrence in children and very normal as they are developing their logical brain and gaining confidence as they grow. But when these types of things happen in our kids’ lives, we think that they have just given up for no reason and we should encourage them to keep trying. Even this idea is well-intentioned, imagine if when my daughter said “I’m not going to do backflips anymore”, I countered with “Oh, honey, but you’re getting so good at them! Don’t give up now!” How do you think she would respond? Would she say, “Mom, you are so wise and all knowing and you’re right, I should keep trying! I’ll practice right now and not stop until I conquer doing a backflip!”?

Not in a million years…

Not only is it hard to deal with quitting, it’s disappointing and frustrating to deal with our children not wanting to try new things. I signed my daughter up for a musical theater class after we went to a Broadway show and she showed great enthusiasm for getting more involved in musical theater. Now, I know her personality well, so of course, I talked it over with her and made sure she wanted to go a few times, as I knew this class would be a challenge for an introvert like her, an important challenge to face, but still a challenge.

The day of the class arrived, and she showed some trepidation about what it was going to be like and was very nervous before we went, so I talked her through some of what might happen in the class. I let her know that I agreed that being nervous about something you don’t know about is totally normal, and off we went.

When we arrived, she was hesitant, but saw her friend, and took her seat as I quickly fled the scene. The class was the epitome of challenging for a kid like her. There were tons of kids in the class, it was loud, there was music playing, and she knew almost no one.

I was worried she wasn’t going to like it.

Sure enough, after the class was over, she slowly walked out of the building with a scowl on her face, reluctant to give me any information about why she seemed upset. Later, I took a peak at the papers they gave her in class, and gathered that she probably felt uncomfortable with the exercises they did which mostly involved self-awareness and working with emotions. There was also homework, which spells death to a second grader, so needless to say, she was not happy.

Not another activity she’s going to want to quit, I thought…

Later that night, my husband and I discussed my daughters’ recent struggles with the backflips and with the new musical theater class. He expressed that he was concerned about how quickly she gave up, not just on the backflips, but also with riding her bike, and piano lessons, and a few other things. He suggested that we should emphasize that she just needed to keep trying and not quit so easily. And a couple of months ago, I might have agreed with him, but life coaching has taught me that this approach may not work.

And here’s why:

When we tell them just to keep trying, we are beating up the ACTION

Not trying backflips, riding a bike, etc. – these are all my daughter’s actions. But, as we know from learning the model, the action is never the root of the problem. Let’s put this in a model (my main tool for solving any problem) and I will show you what I mean (if you’re new to the model, find more info in this blog post):

(C) Circumstance (hard facts): Ella did a back handspring instead of a backflip

(T) Thoughts:

(F) Feelings:

(A) Action: She said, “I am not going to do backflips anymore” and she stormed up to her room.

(R) Result:

Right now, let’s look at the model with just what we know about Ella (the C and A lines), since we’re imagining what may be happening in the other lines (T, F, and R lines).

What do you notice about where the action line is? It’s below the thoughts and feelings lines! Which means it’s her thoughts and feelings that are fueling her action of quitting, right? So if we just focus solely on her action, and force her to try again, while ignoring what she’s thinking and feeling, we are going to get no where.

Instead, my suggestion is to get curious. It would be helpful to gather more information to fill in the model for our kids as much as we can. Fighting the action is what discipline usually does, but does that approach always work? Sometimes, we can figure out what is behind the action and work to understand and help change the T and F lines. If we do, we have helped them navigate all kinds of challenging situations all at once and given our kids life long skills to persevere.

Now let’s imagine what could be happening in the rest of Ella’s model:

(C) Circumstance (hard facts): I did a few back handsprings instead of a backflips.

(T) Thoughts: I can’t do back flips anymore! I keep messing up! I suck at this!

(F) Feelings: Frustration

(A) Action: Saying, “I am not going to do backflips anymore” and storming up to my room.

(R) Result: I don’t do backflips anymore.

As you can see, the thought proves the result, she can’t do backflips anymore. Now, once I have filled out the model, can I find a way to see how this could be true for Ella? Surely, I can understand that having thoughts about failing can cause frustration, which could ultimately cause me to want to give up. Now that I can imagine what Ella might be thinking and feeling and I have empathized with her, I am in a position to start to help her.

When we focus on our child’s thoughts and feelings, we can really begin to validate our children and help them to have the life skills needed to gain confidence and not quit. Also, making sure they know that feeling negative emotions doesn’t have to mean we give up is key.

Below I have outlined actionable steps you can take when your child wants to quit or doesn’t want to try something new:

How to help your child who wants to quit:

  1. After the emotion has lessened in intensity and when the child is calmer, start with step 2.
  2. Acknowledge that they may be feeling frustrated, disappointed or sad and that this is normal and ok (this validates their emotion).
  3. Help them process the emotion with this method.
  4. Get curious about what thoughts might have lead them to feel this way.
    1. Ask them what may have happened after they messed up?
    2. What were they thinking about before they quit? Or why did they quit?
  5. Emphasize that giving up isn’t the only choice after a mistake or frustration with an activity. Ask them what other choice they could have made after making a mistake? Ask for help? Take a short break and come back to it later? Offer helpful, more confidence building thoughts like, “I believe you can figure this out” or “It’s ok to make a mistake”.
  6. Offer the idea that having a negative emotion (fear, nervousness, frustration) is normal and doesn’t mean you have to quit. You can keep going in spite of that emotion, and it helps to move to a new thought to inspire you to keep going if you can, which creates more confidence.

How to help your child who doesn’t want to try something new:

  1. Validate your child’s feelings by saying, “It looks like you’re feeling nervous about going/doing this new thing. Is that right? It’s totally ok and normal to feel nervous. I feel nervous before I do new things all the time.”
  2. Process the emotion – fear or nerves or whatever they are feeling, using this method.
  3. Get curious about what they might be thinking.
    1. Ask questions like, how can I help you feel more comfortable?
    2. What exactly are you afraid of, nervous about? Talk through what they are thinking and what may happen during this new activity.
    3. Talk about what obstacles may come up and a solution to try. For example, they may fall off the bike, and if they do, they can get back up and try again or take a break. Or they may not know anyone in their new class, and if so, they can introduce themselves or just sit quietly and observe.
  4. Recall a time when they tried something new and they succeed or overcame fear. Talk about how proud they were of themselves in that moment.
  5. Let them know that they have succeeded in your eyes just by facing the challenge and trying. You have no expectation other than that. You are also there to offer support and will help them in any way you can.
  6. Ask them how they can make it fun! Ask them to imagine the possibility that it may actually be fun, and they can choose to make it fun if they want to. Thoughts like, “I will be ok no matter what happens.” “I can choose to have fun.” “I bring the fun.” “I am the fun.” “I will feel so much better if I try.” will help.

As you can see, these steps will not only help your child with the immediate issue, but with any struggle they face in the future, the more they (with your help) practice these skills. We all experience times when we want to quit or we want to stay under the covers because putting ourselves out there is scary! What our child is going through is totally normal and part of learning how to be an emotional adult. Your job is not to criticize the action, but offer alternatives to what their brain is automatically doing, because the brain wants you to stay safe.

Help them to see that they are in control and just because something doesn’t feel great, it doesn’t mean we have to give up. We can use our thoughts to give us the feeling of confidence before we do something new or try again. And there are some really great feelings on the other side of trying and not quitting.

Want a free printable of the steps above, including “How to Process Your Feelings”?  

Download instantly by clicking on the link or image below!

What to do when your child wants to quit or won’t try something new

If you want more help on getting your kids to cooperate, deal with their emotions, and learn how to stop being reactive as a parent, join my Facebook Group, Calm Confident Parenting. There will be LIVE trainings and masterclasses every week that will help you to become the best parent you can be!

If this sounds like your child and you would like help handling their emotions and teaching them to learn how to manage their emotions on their own, schedule a free 60 minute call with me or email me at adrienne@adriennebishopcoaching.com to schedule a call. On this call, I will tell you how to help your child and how to continue working with me if that’s what’s best for you and your child.

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