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Today's Family Magazine

When your child feels discouraged

By Jan Pierce

We parents understand that life comes with a certain amount of struggle. But that doesn’t mean we like it. It’s hard to watch our children grapple with tough issues—dealing with strong emotions, accepting small failures on the way to success, and learning to make lasting friendships. It’s a given, there will be ups and downs in our children’s lives.

So when we see them struggling with discouragement, we want to step in and help. And that’s exactly what we should do. Children are in the process of growing and learning to manage their own lives, but they aren’t there yet. As parents we need to have strategies in place when our kids are feeling discouraged.

What can parents do?
The first step is to identify the arena in which your child is experiencing defeat.  Most often this comes in the school setting.  Children with learning disabilities or attention issues often find themselves feeling unable to cope.  But there may be other areas of struggle too, such as sports or social interactions.

While there is no one-size-fits-all way to support children who have become discouraged, here are some ways parents can come alongside and guide them to a place of success.

Recognize the signs
that your child is becoming frustrated.  These may be manifested in negative talk such as “I can’t do it.”  Or in outbursts of anger.  It’s important to come alongside your child before negative cycles become a regular pattern.

Identify the problem.
If it relates to academic learning determine which subjects or tasks are problem. Early interventions in school and appropriate testing are often very helpful in assessing needs. Children may have vision or hearing losses, may have communication disorders, may have problems with focusing attention or any number of other learning problems. But all these problems can be addressed. 

Assure your child he or she is not alone.
Children who are struggling with learning or managing a certain skill often feel they are carrying the burden all by themselves.  But your empathy and calming assurance that they will have help is crucial.  Letting them know their success is a team effort can offer great relief.  The team may include teachers or other professionals or may be simply you and your child.  The team is important.

First the emotions, then the problem.
No one can tackle a tough problem when they’re upset, angry or frightened.  You know your child best and know what can help them overcome strong emotions.  Take a break, talk it out, take another look together, etc.  Sometimes sharing stories of our own learning experiences is helpful and many times finding something to laugh about is the way to break the negative cycle.

Emphasize who they are and not only what they can do.
Your child is much more than the tasks he completes or the grades she gets.  Make sure you verbalize the things you love about your child and encourage a broader perspective than just success in school or performance in sports.

Do the hard things in small bites.
Return to the difficult work in short sessions and in small increments.  Do one or two math problems, not an entire page.  Read one paragraph and let the child read the next.  Make it doable and over time the mountain won’t seem so huge.

Take a long-term perspective.
All of life involves learning.  We’re better at some things than others and everyone makes mistakes as they learn.  It’s good to learn persistence but make the tasks manageable.

Life can be stressful.  Helping our children learn strategies to cope when the going is tough will pay benefits their entire lives.  

For more information on helping our kids cope with stress see:  “Coping Skills for Kids”
Mayo Clinic:  “Strategies for Stressed Kids and Resilience: Build Skills to Endure Hardship”

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and author.