Know when to push and when not to push your child

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I work with many adults in my practice who struggle to follow through on the positive goals they set for themselves. These are goals like exercise, keeping a healthy diet, and making their needs a priority — all self-improvement goals. My clients are responsible adults as well as committed parents who are better at caring for others than for themselves. 

Adults who struggle to follow through on their personal goals and challenges often did not learn to persevere as children. Their own well-intended parents may have been too permissive when they allowed their child to give up and quit a challenging activity.

In our high-performing culture, it’s hard to imagine that many parents today allow their children to quit. Parenting styles, however, run the gamut from the overprotective, helicopter parent, who strives to ease their child’s pain and disappointment, to the notorious tiger mom, whose goal is to push her child to the limit on achievement and performance.

In truth, most parents struggle to find a healthy balance between pushing children and allowing them the freedom to make their own choices. Many parents ask what the healthy parenting approach is when it comes to allowing children to quit something versus pushing them to stick it out even when they are highly resistant.

The answer is, it depends on the situation. When parents feel that their children are getting burnt out by pressure or over scheduling, they may need to limit or stop an activity. An example from my own life as a parent was when my son was in elementary school and he had been dedicated to playing a club sport for almost four years. I worried about burnout at such a young age, but he seemed to love the sport, at least until the games started taking up most of his weekend time and the competition became extreme. He started to complain about physical ailments, and yet he denied wanting to stop playing. I wondered if he wanted a break and didn’t know how to tell me. I decided to find out. I told him that I was feeling that the sports schedule was a bit much for me and said that although I’d never insist that he stop, I wanted to know if he’d be upset if we did break from it for awhile. He came over, gave me a big hug and told me that he felt the same way; that a break was what was needed. He even thanked me.

I don’t view my son as a quitter and I know he doesn’t view himself as one either. I’m so relieved that I suggested he stop for awhile because had he kept going at that pace, I’m almost certain he would have burned out completely. Today, my son still plays and excels at his favorite sport, but not at the exclusion of all other activities. Sometimes children have to quit an activity or sport for their own well being and other times, children will want to quit at the first sign of struggle.

I recall teaching one of my sons to ski when he was just a toddler. He fussed, cried and resisted and my partner said, “Maybe he doesn’t want to ski and you shouldn’t force him.” I laughed and said, “He’s too young to know what he wants beyond not wanting to feel discomfort in the cold snow.” I’m so thankful I endured his few initial tantrums. He’s an avid skier who can’t get enough of the slopes.

Parents have to trust their instincts about when to push a child to continue with a challenging activity and when to allow them to stop. Here are some basic guidelines:

1. Allow children to quit an activity or sport once they have achieved a basic level of mastery and success and can determine whether or not they like the activity.

2. Children may need to quit an activity when they are over scheduled and are at risk of burnout. Many children can’t put this into words. Parents need to recognize the signs of burnout and act in their child’s interest, even when the child doesn’t recognize the signs themselves.

3. In order to grow and develop, children should be encouraged to continuously take new risks and learn new skills. Reluctant children need their parents’ support to try new activities that may be outside of their comfort zone. Trying new things builds confidence and a courageous child is more willing to endure challenge than one who is unsure and fearful of the unfamiliar.

It’s difficult to know when to allow a child to choose to quit an activity versus pushing them to stick it out even while they are miserable. A pattern of allowing children to give up prematurely can become a learned behavior that stays with us into adulthood. Parents need to support reluctant children to persevere during challenging times, while recognizing that too much intensity may cause burnout. Ultimately parents need to trust their instincts when deciding what’s best for their child — one size does not fit all.

 

Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed child and school psychologist and family therapist on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to kate@drkateroberts.com or www.drkateroberts.com.

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