My child just gives up all the time. What can I do?

posted on 21st August 2019

Have you ever watched babies learning to stand? It’s fascinating. Around 8-10 months old they can pull themselves to stand. Yet with precarious balance, they easily fall back down again.

This doesn’t deter them though. If you’ve ever watched babies learn, they repeat the same action repeatedly until they master it. They are sheer bundles of optimism, never doubting they can achieve. Before long the baby is holding on with one hand and reaching for an expensive ornament with the other.

Before the parents are fully ready, the baby can reach down for a chosen toy and get a swing into their upper reach smashing the ornament entirely. Nothing is more determined than a toddler that wants to move. There’s no fear. They don’t care when they fail, they are resilient, just trying over and over again.

However, whilst most children learn to stand and then to walk in the same way, by the time they are 6 or 7 there are significant differences in children’s ability to keep trying. This is especially evident when they don’t have immediate success with something at school. Some children keep their resilience; keep trying at maths problems or spelling and seek adult help to remain optimistic. Some children pessimistically give up after the first attempt, and worst still, some children can’t even bring themselves to try, showing signs of childhood depression.

We see everyday children who freeze and clam up as soon as they imagine they won’t be able to do an academic task. The thought of getting something wrong threatens their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. these pessimistic children fail to try because they have a core belief that they are worthless and will never succeed. Pessimism often leads to depression and helplessness. What we also know, is out in the waiting room is often a parent who is confused and scared by their child’s behaviour. They love their child and they showed their child they love them every day but still, their child feels so bad when it comes to schoolwork. The secret is to not worry about how the child got pessimistic but to focus on how to help them achieve internal optimism. To do that, we must listen carefully to how children are talking and intervene slightly, whilst at the same time modelling the ability to keep trying at something.

Listening to how children talk and making small interventions is the key. Optimistic children talk about not being able to do something in a local way. ‘I didn’t’ do very well in my spelling today, the words were hard, I need to practice them more. Whereas pessimistic children talk about not being able to do something in a global way. ‘I didn’t do very well in my spelling today, I’m bad at spelling. I will never be any good’. Pessimistic children think there’s something wrong with them so it will never be possible. Talking in a localised way, and seeing it was difficult because the task was hard, allows the children to understand it’s not them, it’s the task that’s hard If they want to achieve, they just need to practice more. Maybe involved the help of adults to help, but it still needs to be practice.

If you hear your child talk pessimistically, it’s important to acknowledge their feelings, normalise them and then remind them that they are learning and that is normal too. for example, if your child is telling you how rubbish they are, try something like this. ‘I bet it didn’t feel very nice when you got your spelling scores. I remember when I was your age, I found some words hard to spell too. I had to keep practising them lots of times’.  Also, if your child is sounding pessimistic, every so often, tell them about something you couldn’t do the first time and had to keep trying.  Tell them how it made you feel, then describe your feelings of achievement after you practised and achieved it.  It could be things like trying out a new recipe, programming the tv, finding your way around a new place.

The difference between babies learning to stand and 7-year olds learning new things is that babies don’t have the capacity to be pessimistic. Young children sometimes need more support to be more resilient to failure and ward off this pessimism.


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