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All children have experienced a task or activity that becomes boring, difficult, or overwhelming, so they stop. There could be several reasons why they suddenly want to want to quit: they may be facing unrealistic expectations from others, they aren’t having fun anymore, or are not performing as well as their peers.
Persisting and finding effective approaches are critical steps toward overcoming difficult challenges. Challenges we present to children must be developmentally appropriate and supported with relevant background knowledge.
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Here are five research-based approaches children and their caregivers can use immediately when they become so frustrated they want to quit.
1. Cultivate a Growth Mindset
American psychologist Carol Dweck explains fixed mindsets occur when people believe they are born with innate defects. They feel they can do little to improve upon those defects.
When people cultivate growth mindsets, they purposefully choose challenges to overcome.
Adults who work with children can create contexts in which true growth mindsets can take shape. This can be achieved by effective instructional scaffolding by gradually removing assistance as children master a skill.
An example of this is when a child learns to ride a bicycle. Scaffolding plays a key role as a child graduates from riding a tricycle or a balance bike to training wheels or a “big kid” bike.
Dweck cautions caregivers and educators against empty praise for effort that results in failure to achieve a successful outcome, which she calls a “false growth mindset.” Instead, she recommends adults scaffold effective learning strategies that result in success, then tie praise to effort and achievement of a measured goal.
Here are three applications you can try.
1. Remind children about events they have overcome in the past. This helps them recall they have faced difficulties before, and found ways to conquer hardships. You could say:
“Do you remember how riding the balance bike felt difficult at first? And then, with lots of practice, it became so much easier for you!”
2. Observe the attempts children make. Then identify their successes by explicitly naming strategies they used. You could say:
“I saw you lose your balance on the bike. When you fell onto the grass, you got right back on the bike. You tried again even though it was hard the first time.”
3. If children are not succeeding, determine the problem(s) and try to identify potential solutions. Try to always involve children in identifying solutions to the problem. Children are more likely to use a solution if they feel they have at least partial, if not sole ownership, over the idea. You could say:
“What do you think you could do to help you to keep your balance? You tried slowing down before and that worked!”
The Big Life Journal--Second Edition (ages 7-10) helps children develop strong Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and growth mindset skills through inspiring stories, colorful illustrations, and engaging guided activities. It’s a perfect way to start your growth mindset journey!
2. Have your child be a superhero!
Teach your child to self-distance. Not to be confused with the social distancing, self-distancing is the ability to critically reflect on oneself. It is a way to place distance between oneself and a challenge and can be useful for both children and adults to gain a clearer perspective of a challenging situation.
Psychologist Rachel White and her colleagues asked young children to assume qualities of superheroes such as Batman, Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer, or Rapunzel. Then the children were asked, “Is Batman working hard?” or “Am I working hard?”
White and her colleagues found when children used “self-distance” and assumed qualities of a superhero, they remained engaged in the task for a longer duration than if they were asked, “Am I working hard?”
White and her colleagues suggest this may result partly from the child’s association of heroes with qualities such as persistence, wisdom, endurance, or strength. Furthermore, “self-distancing” can be a powerful way for adults and children to reframe their original perspectives about difficult tasks. Here are three strategies to try:
1. Provide superhero dress-up clothes and accessories for pretend play. Consider how adults are encouraged to “dress for the job” to put themselves into a professional mindset. This concept can work well for children, too.
Encourage your child to wear the clothes and accessories of a superhero. This may inspire children to imagine themselves embodying powerful, desirable qualities. You could say:
“When you wear your Superperson cape, I hear you say you can work very hard and stick with the job! Put on your cape and give it your best try!”
2. During a short break, draw, color, or paint a “superhero” self-portrait. Drawing, coloring, and painting are proven calming techniques.
Creating a self-portrait as a SUPERHERO can be inspiring! Ask your child to consider a list of qualities important to them and develop a superhero persona.
Need a fast version of this activity? Draw a simple cartoon or a stick-figure. Here is a resource for creating a superhero self-portrait.
3. Avoid using negative words such as “CAN’T,” “WON’T,” or “DON’T.” Here is a tried-but-true method to make this concept more concrete for children. Write “can’t,” “don’t,” and/ or “won’t” on pieces of scrap paper. Then, ball up the papers and throw them into the recycle bin.
Bonus points if you can make it into the basket, and bonus laughs if you miss. Either way, it’s a win-win! You could say:
“We don’t need words like 'can’t,' 'don’t,' and 'won’t'! We need helpful words like 'CAN!' 'DO!' 'WILL!'”
The Resilience Kit PDF (ages 5-11) helps children discover that resilience can be learned like any other skill. It just takes practice and patience. This collection of printables helps children develop their inner grittiness, putting them on the path to happiness and success.
3. Stop, refocus, reattempt
Even if children are not experts YET, this does not mean mastery will elude them forever. Encourage children to redirect their own focus by taking a break that best fits the situation.
Your child may try stopping for a short time, such as one minute or less. A longer break could diminish momentum. Alternatively, your child may need a more substantial break from the activity.
For example, a good night’s rest may help your child to resolve the issue. During this break, help your child to consider alternative approaches to successfully accomplish the task, such as one of the following:
1. If your child is participating in a sport such as swimming or running, try slowing down the pace. Most people need to build muscle strength, skill or endurance before they can pick up the pace. This can take a considerable length of time and can be exhausting. You could say:
“Remember when you sprinted so fast, you couldn’t finish the 100-yard freestyle? If you slow down, you can finish the race. You will keep getting faster as you build muscle.”
2. Help children understand they don't need to do it alone. Your child could ask a peer, parent, guardian, friend, family member or someone else for help. Maybe someone you know has struggled through a similar problem, and found effective solutions already.
Asking for help does not mean a person is admitting weakness. It takes strength and effort to proactively seek a solution. You could say:
“Remember when we got lost on our way to the new ice cream parlor? I had to ask for directions at the gas station. Then, we were able to find the ice cream parlor and eat delicious ice cream!”
3. Develop a calming routine with children, depending upon their needs. Encourage your child to take the same number of deep breaths as their age.
For example, a six-year-old would take six deep breaths. Additionally, have them count their fingers, or sing or hum a calming song. You could say:
“Let’s take a short break and sing ‘Somewhere over the rainbow.’ I know how you like to relax with that song.”
Be sure to check out the Gratitude and Mindfulness Kit (ages 5-12) to discover fun and engaging activities that promote kindness, positive thinking, gratitude and more.
4. To help stay on-task, consider setting a productivity timer. For example, Francesco Cirillo developed the “Pomodoro Technique,” a method of timing one’s “time on-task” in 25-minute chunks, followed by short breaks.
Your child may need a different amount of time for the activity at hand, so tailor this to their needs. When children know they have a limited amount of time to complete an activity, they may be more willing to stick with it if they know they will get a break soon.
This can be a very useful approach to add to a child’s routine. Here is a link for a (free) online timer application:
You can say:
“Remember when you completed that science project so efficiently? Let’s set a timer and see how much work we can complete in 25 minutes.”
4. Make a list! Respond to the task in writing
Writing in response to a challenging activity can be an effective way to quickly sort out what is working, and what isn’t. Listing different approaches you have and have not yet tried can help to make ideas seem more concrete.
Children can list what they have already tried to do. Crossing off items they have already tried can help children develop a sense of accomplishment.
1. If your child has already tried one or more approaches to the problem, write down the “pros” and “cons” of quitting something. If writing is too frustrating, a more knowledgeable peer or adult can assist the child with this task.
You could say:
“It’s OK if we come up with a list of “pros” and “cons” about soccer practice. Tell me what you think, and I will add some ideas, too.”
2. If you have no one to ask, or if that option does not yield an acceptable solution, Google your topic to see if you can find information about how others have approached a similar problem. You may discover an unexpected, useful approach. You could say:
“Let’s use Google to see if anyone else also has trouble with scoring goals at soccer practice. Perhaps they have written about some solutions that have worked.”
5. Reframe your own perspective
It is not uncommon for an adult’s desire for the child to achieve to overshadow the child’s actual interest in the event. If you, or someone you know, are in a similar situation, you are not alone.
Whatever the conditions, it is critical adults take great care to place an appropriate, manageable amount of pressure on their children. This will help them to successfully cope with frustration throughout their lives.
By simply reading this article, you are taking a measure to support your child. Here are some applications that may help adults to discern what’s really going on.
Applications for adults:
1. Consider what motivates you to encourage your child to achieve in this way. Is it status, alignment with perception of friends and family, anxiety about your child’s future, or something else?
Seek the root of the motivation and consider whether or not it is truly necessary for your child’s benefit and long-term well-being.
Say to your child, “There must be a way for everyone to be happy. How do you think we can find a way for everyone to be happy?”
2. Carefully choose your language. For example, referring to a setback as “failure” can feel devastating to a child. Avoid assigning labels to the child’s activity.
When discussing children’s performance, refer to what happened in the actual event. Then, you can discuss suggestions about what to do next. You could say:
“I saw how well you pressed the brakes on your bike before you came to the stop sign. You pressed them so hard, you lost control of your brakes, and you fell. You can practice pressing the brakes with less pressure next time, when you’re ready.”
3. Adults may need to take a self-distancing break, too. Such a break can help to reflect and gain clarity about the situation. You could say:
“Let’s have something to drink and come back to this in a few minutes.”
4. Try to imagine your child’s reactions to the activity. By viewing the situation from the lens of a child, solutions to the problem may quickly become clear. You could say:
“I can understand that it makes you feel nervous when you are going too fast on your bike. It might make you press the brakes harder than you need. When you feel nervous, take three deep breaths and slow down.
5. Talk to someone you trust if your child wants to quit. By opening up to a close friend or family member, you may gain reassurance about your next steps. You could say:
“This is difficult. I’d love to talk about this with you? How did you approach this problem?”
Whether your child is minimally frustrated with a new test, or pushed to the brink of failure, this article offers some strategies to cope with various challenges. Whatever you decide to do, always remember your child’s mental well-being is critical not only in this moment, but throughout the course of their lives.