Q: I have an ongoing challenge with my almost-9-year-old son. Each time he starts a new activity (soccer, swimming, skating, art), he imagines himself to be the best there is. He looks up the best people in that activity and thinks he can be better than them. Inevitably, because not everyone can be Usain Bolt or Lionel Messi, he falls short in his own eyes and doesn’t want to do that activity anymore, or he blames everyone else (his coach is terrible, his teammates are no good, etc.). I would like for him to try different activities and have fun, but he only seems to enjoy something if he can win. It’s incredibly draining to watch him cycle through these emotions. It’s not even that he’s in many different activities; there’s usually just one at any given time, once or twice a week, with breaks. But this has been his pattern for a few years now. I’m not sure how to teach him resilience and to enjoy the learning, rather than trying to become the next Roger Federer.
A: Thank you for writing in. You are not alone in having a child who quits; I receive many letters about this. First, let’s take a peek at what typical 9-year-olds look like, developmentally speaking. Nine-year-olds are truly coming into themselves, and comparing one 9-year-old to another can be a fool’s errand. One child may be spirited and independent, while another may be more withdrawn and private. Typical 9-year-olds can easily flare, then start to move on more easily and want to practice a task obsessively until they feel it’s “perfect.”
It is also typical for 9-year-olds to look up to the best in their field and want to be just like them. (I frequently imagined myself to be Cyndi Lauper when I sang “Time After Time” in the mirror, and you can see how that turned out.) Peers can take on more importance, and it is easy for boys to compare themselves to their friends.
In essence, 9-year-olds are becoming ever-complicated humans, and parents are moving increasingly out of the driver’s seat and into the co-pilot’s chair.
Something I don’t know about your son — and this is critically important — is your interaction with him during these quitting scenarios.
For instance, let’s say your son isn’t running like Usain Bolt, blames his track coach and quits. I would like to know whether you are using logical thought (“It isn’t reasonable for you to think you can run like Usain Bolt, Devon; you are 9, smaller and cannot do that”), asking chronic questions (“Why would you think you could run like one of the fastest people in the world?”), cajoling him (“Come on, get up, try again. Don’t be a quitter, buddy!”), threatening him (“If you don’t stop whining and start running, I am going to take away your iPad”), guilting him (“Mom paid $400 for you to run on this team, and you’re letting me and your team down if you keep quitting”) or freezing him out, which sounds like nothing and is an icy silence that creates more anxiety and worry for the child.
Again, I am not blaming you for having these reactions; it is incredibly frustrating to parent a perfectionist/quitter. But the first aspect we need to assess is whether you are watering the weeds, which means you’re only paying attention to the quitting, whining, blaming and other bad behaviors. If you aren’t consciously growing more of what you want to see in your son, then it will be hard for him to find a new path forward; he will be stuck in a thought and behavior loop. (Idolize, try, fail, quit, repeat.) Interrupting this pattern requires creating situations where there are small wins, and treating the failures and quitting with more equanimity. I know: This is easier said than done.
It could also be that you are parenting an intense, highly sensitive or anxious child (or all three). You could be parenting your bottom off and, without knowing it, making his anxiety worse.
If you pick up Elaine N. Aron’s book “The Highly Sensitive Child” or peruse the Hey Sigmund website, which focuses on anxiety, depression and more, and feel as if you’re reading about your child, then I would strongly suggest reaching out to an expert for more support. Work with a therapist or counselor who will see you both, rather than just your child. It isn’t enough for your son to be “helped” in therapy if you are not also going to be taught skills to help grow his resilience and bravery at home.
Pick up books, read websites and talk to professionals in the field to get the support you need to parent him into his tween and teen years with compassion and courage. Good luck!
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