Health & Science

How to handle it when your child wants to quit

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When your child wants to quit a sport or activity, it can be a tough decision for families. No one wants to raise a quitter, but it’s not always easy to know when we should encourage our children to buck up and stick with things, and when it’s OK to let them quit.

In recent years, high-profile athletes such as gymnast Simone Biles have decided to prioritize their mental health by pulling out of international competitions. These courageous decisions have shifted the national conversation on quitting and mental health. They also have many parents wondering if they’ve ever pushed their own child too hard.

Knowing when to draw boundaries is important in life, especially if it affects one’s overall health or it becomes dangerous, as it did for Biles. That said, sometimes it’s good to stick things out, especially if your child has made a commitment to a team or another person. Facing challenges head on builds resilience, a skill that prepares children for life’s inevitable hurdles, helping them feel more confident and in control. 

So how do you know when it’s best to encourage children to stick something out, and when it’s OK to let them quit?

What to consider when your child wants to quit

“I believe in giving kids as much choice as possible. But they also need structure, a work ethic, and to focus their energy someplace positive,” psychotherapist Jenn Berman, author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids, told Parents.

If you notice your child is constantly whining, complaining, faking injuries, or otherwise barely participating in something, these can be signs you should let them quit. There’s a big difference between nerves and anxiety. Anxiety disrupts eating and sleeping habits as well as mood and thought patterns, while nerves are a natural reaction to a challenge ahead.

When a child is so unhappy that they are physically, emotionally, or mentally distraught, and perhaps their grades are suffering, too, experts say it’s best to let them step back, but make sure you have a conversation about it first, especially if their nerves are based on lack of experience with something. Not everyone embraces risk and new challenges the same way, and some children need time — and plenty of encouragement — before they’re ready to try something new.  So long as your child is giving things a fair shot and quitting is not becoming a habit, drawing boundaries is part of growing up.

Another sign that it’s OK to let your child quit something is if it becomes clear that it’s your dream, not theirs. Maybe you always wanted to be a ballerina, and the idea that your child hates it is akin to letting your own dream die—but when the reality is the dream was never your child’s to begin with, you shouldn’t force them to do something they don’t enjoy. “If a child feels like they’ve lost ownership over their experience, forcing them to play or be involved in something they don’t like is not going to teach them the value of perseverance that many parents are after,” Eric Bean, a sports psychology consultant, told the Washington Post

Don’t forget to look in the gray area

Note that there can be some gray area between quitting and continuing on the current path. Talk with your child to find out the reasons they may or may not want to keep going. 

It could be that they love dance, but they don’t love performing on stage. Or they really enjoy playing soccer, but are really put off by the intense practices or pressure to win. In cases like those, you might be able to find a different class, league, or program that better meets your child’s needs and interests, without giving up on the activity completely. 

It could also be the case that their schedule just feels too chaotic and overwhelming. In that case, adjusting some of the other commitments on their list could ease the strain and let them enjoy this particular activity again.

Finally, consider that your child could pick up a different sport or activity, to avoid the parts of the current one they dislike while still getting benefits like exercise and lessons in teamwork.

At the end of the day, if the activity in question builds your child’s self-confidence, it’s probably worth sticking with, but if it’s tearing that down, it might be time to throw in the towel. Whatever you decide to do, include your child in the decision-making as age-appropriately as possible. It’s just as important they own part of the decision as it is to show them support, because they’re likely to have mixed feelings about their decision no matter what. The important thing is they feel supported, not judged, for the choice they make. 

There’s a time and a place for everything in life, but certain things like our health and well-being should never be compromised.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.