It’s frustrating and worrying to hear kids say “I can’t do it!” We want them to have confidence in their abilities, but just insisting “Yes you can, I’ve seen you do it!” really doesn’t help. That type of response dismisses the frustration and anxiety that your child could be feeling, and can make kids feel defensive because it seems as if we’re arguing with them rather than encouraging them.
It doesn’t address whatever the underlying issue is, either. Keep in mind your child could be saying they “can’t” do something for many different reasons—maybe they’re tired, they’re overwhelmed with the instructions, they’re getting stuck on a certain part of the task at hand, they’re afraid of making mistakes, or they want help in order to spend time with you. The uncertainty of the pandemic has proven to shake kids’ confidence as well, causing an increased need for reassurance and regression in previously mastered skills.
Whatever the reason, here are some approaches that can help you coach your kiddo through a tough problem—while boosting their confidence for whatever comes their way in the future.
Validate feelings first
Even though your first instinct might be to counter with “Of course you can!” it’s important to lead with empathy and to acknowledge that your child is feeling frustrated or overwhelmed at that moment.
Validating their feelings with a simple, “I can tell that you’re getting frustrated” or “It looks like you’re having a tough time” goes a long way toward getting your child emotionally ready to move forward.
By leading with this approach, you’re letting your kiddo know that yes, it’s completely normal to feel frustrated while doing something hard—AND you believe that they can learn from that emotion and make progress on the hard task anyway!
Break it down and problem-solve
Get down to specifics to find out which part your kiddo is getting stuck on. Sometimes one small thing that they are intimidated by will make them throw up their hands and say that they can’t do the whole project.
So ask guiding questions to help them problem-solve their way through the part that they’re stuck on. “How do you think you could fix that?” “Which piece doesn’t look like it fits in?” “Should we make up a rhyme to remember that part?”
When they’re making progress, give them encouragement with something like, “One of the sleeves was inside out, but you figured it out! I bet you can figure out the next part too!”
Praise efforts instead of outcomes
Even if your child hasn’t gotten very far with the task at hand (from your adult perspective), you can still find some part of the process to praise. Say: “I like how you started by laying everything out so you can see what you have,” or “I can see that you’re concentrating very hard on getting the zipper started.”
This gives your child confidence in their own abilities and encourages them to keep working. You can use this effort-praise to move them along, with phrases such as: “I bet you can use that great focus to do the next step,” or “How are you going to use that super-organized list of yours?”
Offer a break
If your child seems tired, hungry, cranky, or easily frustrated by small setbacks, let them know that it’s OK to take a break and try again later. Maybe they need a snack or drink of water, a walk or movement break, or a little snuggle with you or with their favorite doll. Afterwards, they can start the task again with renewed energy!
This approach helps with long-term confidence and independence because it teaches them that they DO have the capacity to do something—but they may need to slow down sometimes and give their body and mind a little boost first. It gives them the tools they’ll need to help themselves prepare for difficult tasks in the future.
Take off some pressure
Some kids may be scared to jump into a task because they don’t want to fail. Make sure kids know that it’s OK to make mistakes and they don’t have to do it perfectly right away.
You can show them that with a little humor: “Here, let me try to read this myself. Does it say ‘blompy blooky bloo’? Hmm, that doesn’t sound right.”
Or take off the pressure by discussing the specifics of what will happen if they mess up: “What would happen if you wrote something down and it turned out to not be correct? Well, you do have an eraser! Or you could try as many times as you want on this piece of scrap paper and then throw it out.”
Do it together
Sometimes a child will say they can’t do something because they are seeking emotional support or a connection with you. There’s nothing wrong with strengthening your relationship by doing the task together, as long as you’re also letting them practice their skills as appropriate for their age and development.
For example, for a preschooler you could offer to put on one sock while they put on the other—while with an adolescent you could be an assistant with school work, quizzing them or coming up with memorable hints for something they’re trying to remember.
Getting that thoughtful, intentional support from you will give kids a steadier base to leap from in the future when they need to do it themselves!