Blog: Long-Distance Parenting Is Hard On Us All

Susan Stiffelman

When things don’t come easily to my 9-year-old daughter, she gives up, whether it’s solving a math problem, cleaning her room, or painting a picture. She either begs me to do it for her or has a meltdown. How do you get children to try things that are hard for them?

Many children struggle to keep going when the going gets tough, making it harder to shake that limiting mindset when they move into their adult life. Here are some thoughts about how to instill a “Can Do” attitude in your daughter.

• Acknowledge frustration. Rather than giving her a pep talk about why she shouldn’t be a quitter, help your daughter move through discouraged feelings by giving her what I call “Act I” responses.

You were hoping you could get your painting to look like the one Mona did. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t come out on the page the way you pictured it in your mind.

This math problem is different from the ones you were doing last week. It sounded easy when the teacher explained it, but right now it’s really confusing you.

• Teach mindfulness. There has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness practice with children. Kids from every walk of life are demonstrating an eagerness to learn techniques to calm down when they would otherwise fall apart.

Here is an activity you can teach your daughter to use when she’s feeling overwhelmed. Have her lie on her back with a small stuffed animal on her stomach. Invite her to breathe deeply into her belly so that she “rocks the stuffed animal to sleep.” By helping her find her center when she’s feeling pushed to her limit, she will develop a greater ability to handle the negative feelings that get in the way of managing challenges and obstacles.

• Help her notice her successes. Many children (and adults) have trouble acknowledging what they have done well, focusing instead on their shortcomings and failures. Have your daughter make a list of her accomplishments, emphasizing things she once believed to be impossible. And do make sure she has plenty of successes; kids who are constantly pushed to do things beyond their abilities will naturally lose enthusiasm for accomplishing difficult things.

It’s easy to forget now, but do you remember how impossible it seemed to jump rope when you first tried? You were sure you’d never get the hang of it, but look at you now!

• Show her how you handle moments when you’re short on confidence.Children take their cues about how to cope with life’s ups and downs by observing their caregivers very carefully. Reveal some of your own inner dialogue when you come up against a challenge, so she knows that she’s not the only one whose thoughts sometimes try to lead her astray.

I thought it would be easy to organize Grandpa’s surprise party but there were so many details I was tempted to give up! I’m so glad I didn’t listen to that voice in my head that said I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. We all had such a great time, didn’t we? And Grandpa sure was surprised! It was worth the extra effort!

• Avoid being needy. If your daughter senses that you need her to finish her painting or tidy up her room, you may activate what I call MOM TV. This is when kids deliberately create drama because we turn on an entertaining “show” with our pleading, threatening and bargaining. Be matter of fact, without coming across as needing on your child to do the dreaded task.

I know it’s hard to clean your room. You were hoping I’d let you do it tomorrow, instead — I get that. Let me know if you want some tips on how I break down big jobs into smaller ones that don’t feel so hard. Otherwise, I’m going to go call Aunt Alice. When you’re done, we’ll have lunch, sweetheart.

When we fix things for our kids, or indulge their unwillingness to try harder at things that aren’t initially easy, we send a message suggesting that we don’t have faith in their ability to stretch beyond their comfort zone. As long as you’re not asking your daughter to do something beyond her reach, these tips should help her develop habits that will build the confidence to face life’s challenges.