First, let’s be clear about one thing: No one does this intentionally. It all happens without realizing what just occurred. However, the consequences for many children and teens are severe.
Misery Over Homework
So, let me explain what I mean, by teaching children to ‘fight’ for their misery. Imagine your son says, ‘I can’t do the math. It’s too hard for me.’ And then you state, ‘Of course you can do the math. It’s not too hard for you. I know you can do it.’
This sounds about right? Yes? But what happens next is critical, because I will bet the house on the following: Your son does NOT suddenly light up with the insight, ‘Oh Mom, I get it. I can do the math. You are so right!’ You have never heard such a thing when trying to convince your child or teen that they can do the math, or play the violin. Instead, you hear the following, offered in a whining voice, ‘Oh no I can’t. It’s too harrrrrdddddd (exaggerated whine)!
And then you lean in a bit more, stating more definitively, ‘Look. You CAN do this. I know you can. I saw your test scores. Just try. Let me help.’
At which point, you get another whining, perhaps tear-filled response, ‘I just can’t Mom.’
And these exchanges could continue, and often do, for many iterations back and forth. Nothing really happens except both Mom and child are getting more emotional. As a parent, you can see their misery in the moment. You can feel how hard you are working to ‘fix’ their thinking for them, and yet it is failing. Failing miserably!
Misery Over Capability
Let’s imagine a similar situation as above, except when presented with homework, your daughter is inclined to go for a bolder claim. As soon as she looks at her homework, she proclaims loudly, ‘I’m stupid. I can’t do anything right.’
This compels you to respond, ‘Of course you are not stupid. You are smart. You can do this.’
She responds dramatically, ‘No. I’m not. I am just dumb.’
You stop your work, come by her side and emphasize how smart she is, how capable her brain is and that you will help her. Again, she resists your wise words. And again, the dialogue goes back and forth several times as you try, again and again, to convince her of the truth to no avail.
In this example, imagine a daughter who is sad over an event at school. Mom tries to soothe and calm the child. But her daughter fights back, arguing that it isn’t fair. Mom soothes again, offering perfectly reasonable guidance. Next, her daughter argues that it’s not her fault, but the teacher’s fault. Mom again tries to align and help her child see a way to let this go and move on. Yet her daughter now says she can’t stop thinking about it, and that it upsets her more. Mom feels frustrated, and keeps repeating herself and tries to soothe her daughter. Nothing seems to work.
How We Teach Kids to Fight for Their Misery
Let’s pull insight from the three conversations above, as these could be expanded to an infinite number of similar conversations. In each situation, let’s assume that this is not a one-time event. Instead, these represent patterns of behavior and interactions that occur with growing frequency.
Now, I invite you to notice who is working harder for sanity and capability in each situation? It’s obvious, right? Mom or Dad is the one with repeated efforts to get the child or teen to ‘see the light.’
Isn’t This Normal?
Yes, it is. It happens over and over.
But here’s the problem: It does not work to teach truth IF the child is working hard to fight it! And usually, they are fighting it.
When this happens, it’s as if the child is repeating a personal mantra to themselves, installing a deep belief by stating, “I can’t. Life’s not fair. It’s too hard.”
Just imagine how such beliefs disable a child from realizing their strengths and capacities. If there is anything that has become clear to me, it’s this: Strength and happiness emerge from realizing that it’s my job (not yours) to take responsibility for what I seek in life.
In next week’s article, I will offer some insight on how to approach such situations differently. For now, if this pattern happens in your home, just notice how ineffective the strategy has been and the futility of working harder at their happiness or success than they do.