"I can't do this! I can't do anything! This is stupid! I'm stupid. Everything is stupid, I quit!"
We've all witnessed these moments of utter frustration when kids feel daunted by an assignment, or even just the idea of homework, often even before the work comes out of the backpack. Their unhelpful, pessimistic sixth sense tells them that this really is impossible, then comes the melt down, the shut down, the collapsing into a heap at the kitchen table, the tears, the anger. The mess.
What's a parent to do?
If you're like most parents, what you do starts out nicely enough -- calmly reassuring, then coaxing, then pleading, then, as your child's resistance mounts, you quickly devolve into exasperation; the tough-love comes out and it's not too pretty (or effective.)
We could launch into an escalating match of dueling catastrophizers (Why can't he do this? If he can't even handle 15 minutes of homework, how is he ever going to get through school, get a job -- deal with life?! I can't take it!), but thankfully, there are other choices!
While it seems like your child is being cranky, spoiled or just needs to toughen up, that's missing the point (and certainly won't help you advance the cause by mentioning it).
Kids in these moments would love things to be different; they don't want to act or feel this way, but their internal yikes button has been pushed, they are in amygdala overdrive, their brain has detected a threat and they are going to fight or flee, but in no way sit down and work. So caught up in their emotions and quick-assessment of the impossibility of their work, they're stumped, they feel trapped and they don't know how to get out.
Kids have probably never loved homework, so that's not new, but thanks to our fast-paced, immediate gratification culture, kids today think that learning and everything else that's mildly challenging and not fun shouldn't be. The resilience and perseverance they show when playing video games or looking for the perfect outfit is unavailable to them when it comes to schoolwork. They think that learning should be like voila! Instant success. No fuss, no muss. And when it's not, they are convinced that their struggle is undeniable proof of their inadequacy and lack of intelligence -- they can't do it, they'll never be able to do it, and... they're stupid.
What's our job? How do we reset the yikes button?
To begin with, we need reverse our children's learning about learning. We need to teach kids that a little bit of struggle is a normal and expected part of anyone's climb on the learning curve. Everyone. Yes, every single person. Very smart people go through the same thing -- a lot. In fact. that's how they get smarter. They just aren't talking about it so kids don't witness it, but it happens to "smart kids" too.
Struggle is not a sign of a problem, it's a sign that new growth is ahead! A sign that mastery is on the other side of this struggle and that means that in a little bit they are going to know even more than they do right now. And when it comes to knowledge -- more is more.
If kids knew to expect the struggle, and viewed it as temporary and manageable, and that on the other side of it is the aha moment of success and pride -- well, they wouldn't be so set on avoiding their work fearing that it will gobble them (and their self-esteem) up; they'd head in knowing that they will emerge triumphant soon (like they always do).
Great. But how do you teach this to a child who is falling apart on the floor?
Empathy, and a plan to do it differently next time. Job number one is to help your child get into the right mindset about work and learning and mistakes, but also creating a plan with your child to get into good work habits and patterns for success. Here are ideas to get you started.
Reflect and Empathize Rather than Convince, Using the Red Pen Edit: Resist the urge to just "fix" or "downplay" your child's distress. Instead, empathize with your child's frustration -- this doesn't mean you agree with the reasons they are feeling the way they do. Your empathy will free them up to hear other points of view. Take the "I can't!" and edit in some qualifiers: "You're feeling really frustrated right now." "This looks really hard right now." "You're not feeling like you want to do this right now." "This feels really overwhelming to you, right now." "Your mind is telling you right now that this isn't going to work." Notice how these edits take away the authority of the negative thinking. "I can't" sounds like a fact, irrevocable. Putting in the qualifiers shows how these ideas are just temporary -- they are one interpretation among many possible alternatives.
Words like this get your child nodding in agreement, and that base of connection will provide the springboard for collaborating on your next move together. Without it, there's no springboard; there's just the gravity of your child's resistance pulling you both down.
Relabel the Bad Guy: Rather than saying things like: "Why are you being so negative (or difficult)? Help your child get distance from their own feelings and don't confuse your child with their negative exaggerating brain. Instead, help your child step back and say: "Your worry is really trying to take over," or, "Your worry mind is really trying to make this hard for you; that's not fair to you." This also helps your child know that you are working with them, not against them.
Get Specific and Think in Parts: Anxious thinking supersizes small problems and makes them seem monumental, permanent and unchangeable. Help your child narrow down the problem from the "everything" that is wrong, and identify the one thing that's really feeling daunting. Negative thinking speaks in absolutes. The antidote is using the word some: "Tell me some parts that are hard, some parts that are perhaps easier." "This feels really big, right now what feels like the hardest part? What's the part that you think will be the toughest? What part do you think you could tackle first?"
Once you break through the tyranny of all or none thinking, some things feel more approachable. The door is open.
Ask Your Child to Time the Process: Children hate homework, but adding an hour of resistance to the 15 minutes it often takes to complete the work is just extending the misery. Challenge your child to see how much more efficiently they can get their work done when there's minimal grumbling. Be a neutral, agenda-free encourager of your child's data collection. Have your child time their actual work time vs. start up time each day for a week. When they see how much time they're wasting on start-up, the result will sell itself. (Don't ruin the project by saying things like, "See, I told you it would be faster if you didn't complain." Best if your child discovers that for himself).
Use Grandma's Rule As An Incentive: First comes dinner, then you get to eat dessert. Heading into homework time, ask your child what they want to do after their work is done. This will help get the momentum going.
Create a Routine: Rather than fight the homework battle anew each day, discuss a plan with your child for when and where homework will be done every day, so after a few weeks (it takes about three weeks to establish a new routine), your child will know the drill and get with the program, and won't argue about it (especially if they were involved in the creation of the plan). Have your child write down the schedule and hang it on the fridge, so if there are questions, you don't have to be the bad guy, just point to the schedule.
Destigmatize Mistakes: Some of the homework drama comes from kids being afraid they won't know how to do something and they don't want to be caught in that moment. Take the pressure off. Yes, there is often a right or wrong answer in school, but in life, kids need to learn how to try things when they are not exactly sure how they will go. Link mistakes with courage and learning rather than embarrassment and failure. Focus on the process -- what they can learn from it -- rather than the fact of the mistake. Have your child identify a "fallible hero" or "famous failure" such as Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, or Thomas Edison requiring 10,000 trials before he made a successful lightbulb. Success is about perseverance; mistakes are the stepping stones.
Don't Talk about the Future in Negative Ways: Keep the, "you need to be able to do this for college!, or, "Every grade counts!" orientation out of your nightly homework routine. What matters is the "trend" of your child's work ethic and performance, not every single moment. The best predictor of future success and confidence is current success and confidence. Don't pull the rug out from under your child by holding the future over her head; instead, build confidence by encouraging your child's efforts now.
Normalize! Show the Seams of How Learning Works: Many children believe that intelligence is fixed -- you either have it or you don't. Parents and educators need to actively promote the idea that intelligence is acquired through experience and experience isn't always neat and tidy. Introduce the idea of a learning curve, let children know that concepts are hard at first, that they have not mastered them yet (not that it is a now or never endeavor). Use examples of your own learning process with new challenges to show the trial and error process of gaining competency. It is not about Presto! It's about effort.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about homework success. Next topic: Strategies for Preventing Homework Procrastination.
Want to learn more about how to help your child overcome worry and negative thinking? Check out my new book, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: The Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life-- From Toddlers to Teens. Harmony Books, 2014.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014 No part may be copied without permission from author. Previously published on Psychology Today.