Q: My 12-year-old son plays on a recreational soccer league, and he's basically the leader and star of the team. Last year — at his request — he joined a Challenge league (essentially one step up from rec). On this team, the kids are more aggressive and more skilled than his rec league teammates, and he seems very intimidated. He barely goes for the ball and kind of stands around. This story is basically a metaphor for his life: Put him in an environment where he's the best and he shines. If anyone is even slightly better than him, he shrinks away and puts in very little effort. He doesn't see the better people as an incentive to practice harder but as a reason to shy away, because he's not good enough. He's like this with school, sports, music — pretty much anything we've ever tried with him. I feel like we must have, in some way, shaken his confidence when he was younger, but how do we help him build it up now, so he doesn't give up the minute someone better comes along? It's so frustrating to watch this, especially as he's becoming a teenager, when his confidence will continue to be tested. He is the oldest of four boys, and his younger brothers seem to be "naturally" good at activities he struggles with. I'm sure this is part of the problem, so we've tried to steer him to separate activities, but he's not interested. Any advice?

A: There are many questions and issues in this letter. We have a 12-year-old young man, the oldest of four boys, a move up on a soccer team, an unwillingness to try and a statement that this is how he is in every aspect of his life. Whoa.

My immediate reaction to your letter is this: Who enjoys feeling like they’re at the bottom again? Being the “big man on campus” and then falling to the bottom of the roster is a scary and threatening feeling.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with your son.

The primary source of alarm in all people is separation, so what separation is your son (unconsciously) facing? First, he is separated from this “ideal self” that he was comfortable with and probably bonded to. Second, he feels separated from his peers, who he imagines are far superior to him in skill and standing. (Maybe they aren’t, but perception is powerful.) Third, he may feel separated in general, because being a 12-year-old can be pretty fraught. On the cusp of their teen years, many 12-year-olds are in a constant state of low- or high-level anxiety. Is he strong enough, smart enough, funny enough? Is he in good standing with his peer group? Twelve is a self-centered age, and everything feels important and dangerous. Some 12-year-olds skate through this year without a problem or insecurity, but I haven’t met any.

His developmental age and his temperament are important aspects to consider, but you are also comparing him with his three younger brothers. I am not faulting you for this; comparison is natural, especially when we’re worried about our child. The brain is trying to make sense of what it sees, but this comparison will only make you miserable. Your eldest son, because of a mix of age, sensitivity, maturity and temperament, is who he is. We can only parent the child in front of us, so let’s stay away from comparison.

What do you do? You’re not going to like this answer, but can you leave him alone a little bit? His soccer coach is supposed to push and inspire him to do better, not you. You are not responsible for steering him in any direction, nor are you responsible for how his teen years shake out. I read your frustration and worry, and I get it, so your primary work is controlling your own worry and interference. It is okay for your child to struggle. It is okay for your son to feel worried and left out. It is okay for your son to feel like he isn’t the best. Life is going to do that to him no matter what.

Your parental role, as he gets older, is to walk with him through these years. Be a sounding board and a source of wisdom, and demonstrate what consideration, thoughtfulness and ease look like, even if your mind is racing.

I’m not saying you’ll never step in with instruction or guidance, but the path is helping your son become more of who he is, not manufacturing his reality. Pick up the books “The Self-Driven Child” by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, “How to Raise an Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims and “Decoding Boys” by Cara Natterson for more support and ideas.

The important thing to remember is this: You are moving into a partnership with your son, and the “steering” years are slipping away. Have some confidence that, although life delivers some blows, your relationship with him can help him navigate life, so he becomes resilient.

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