My 13 year old has been skipping gym class. She refuses to go. She said she doesn't care how much trouble she will get in, she will not go. The principal and counselor have been trying to help and now every time she skips she had to sit in principles office. She doesn't care. Help!
When a youngster refuses to do what we ask, it's tempting to focus our efforts on figuring out what threat or bribe will compel them to cooperate.
However, when I encounter a child who has dug in her heels about something, I prefer to begin with the assumption that in some way, however strange, her behavior makes its own kind of sense.
Working from this frame of mind, let's look at some possibilities for what may be fueling your daughter's refusal to go to gym class. From there, you will be able to be address the underlying issues that are contributing to her resistance. If that doesn't work, it may be best to step back from the situation for a couple of weeks and see if things sort themselves out once you aren't trying to change them.
Using the model I teach in my courses and books, I would call this being the Captain of the ship in your daughter's life. Only when you are calm, clear, and willing to discover what's really going on will you be able to address the problem effectively. Here are some thoughts:
• Let her see you as an ally. If we want to provide our youngsters with advice they will actually listen to, we have to make sure their ears, minds and hearts are open. The more she knows you are on her side, the more honest she'll be. When she feels you genuinely care and aren't just talking with her to get her to do what you want, you'll be better able to work with her to resolve whatever is bothering her about gym class.
• Listen, listen, listen. Listen to your daughter without interrupting, explaining, justifying, or scolding. Until and unless you demonstrate a willingness to hear her truth -- however wrong it may seem -- she will not be open to your input.
• Find out what she's afraid of. Fear is a powerful motivator. Clearly, there is something about gym class that is so bad that she's willing to get in trouble to avoid it. It could be that she has a hard time keeping up with the physical activities. It might be that she's being teased for not playing well enough. Perhaps she's being bullied by some of the other girls. Or maybe she feels the gym teacher has it in for her. Find out what worries her -- if anything.
• Look into independent gym class. Many schools now offer independent credit for sporting activities that take place off site. Perhaps your daughter can get gym credit in an extracurricular sport that she's naturally interested in, like gymnastics, swimming, or soccer.
• Let go. If you aren't making progress with your daughter after listening and addressing any underlying issues that are fueling her resistance to gym class, let it go for a while. I know you might think you're not doing your job as a parent, but your daughter is moving into adolescence, and needs to have more autonomy. If and when she tires of sitting in the principal's office, she may become open to talking honestly with you about what troubles her about gym class. In the meantime, the less desperate you are to convince her to go, the more likely she may turn to you for help with whatever is bothering her about it.
I know some parents will argue that kids need to be forced into doing things they may not want to do. But I have discovered that when we try to control our children to make them do something, they often simply become better at sneaking around to get their way. Better to keep the relationship open and strong, even if -- short term -- she isn't participating in gym class.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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