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How do I teach my teen to not give up?

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Q: Can you teach a young teen how to keep at something, even if it's "boring" or "hard"? My 13-year-old eighth-grade boy gives up at the first sign of adversity — with everything. That was the case before the pandemic, but more so now. He does this even with activities he's naturally talented at: basketball, baseball, etc. He constantly finds excuses to not try, and it's really frustrating and draining. He even does this with something like reading books; he'll skim and say he's done after two minutes — and have missed most of it. He's about to start high school, and this has been an ongoing struggle for years. I'm wishing I was better at finding ways to encourage him without him getting upset or me getting frustrated.

A: “Can you teach a young teen how to keep at something, even if it’s ‘boring’ or ‘hard’?” I badly want to give you an enthusiastic yes, but that would be a bit of a lie. Like everything in life, the answer is unsatisfactory, because, well, it depends.

Facing difficult emotions, such as the pain of failure and the fear of trying something new (or even old), is a teachable skill. We can expose ourselves to hard things, over and over, and if we’re gently nudged and lovingly supported, we can grow to tolerate these hard feelings — and even thrive past them. I recently found myself as a passenger with a dear friend who was petrified to drive over a huge bridge in her convertible. She asked: “Should I do it?” I said: “Yes, I believe in you!” She didn’t speak much, but we breathed and listened to music, and she did it. Her brain now knows she can do that task; tolerating that hard emotion grew her resilience, and she now will probably do it again.

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But it’s not the same with a young teen, is it?

Here are some of the points that pop out from your note: Your son was like this pre-pandemic, he makes frequent excuses (I wish I knew what they were), and he applies this behavior across the board, from reading to activities that come easily to him. Another point that pops out: You are drained and extraordinarily frustrated. This tells me that the dynamic between you and your son is one of (you) pushing, cajoling, etc., your son barely trying and quitting, and you getting understandably sick of it. He reads your frustration and probably internalizes it as some kind of failure, so the circle keeps going.

What I don’t know is, as I call it, the “chicken or egg issue”: Was your son born a little anxious or sensitive to failure, creating some kind of perfectionism, and he’s therefore quick to quit? Or did you push, pull, beg and bother to the point where this is now your parent-child dynamic? The reality is probably somewhere in between, but the answer remains the same: You have to stop your part in this dynamic. Your parenting work is to tease apart where your anxiety and pushing start and end in this dynamic. If this has been happening for years, I’m going to suggest support to help you. It’s not that I don’t think you’re capable of change; it’s that our brains can enter a rut, and it can be difficult to clearly see and change our habits.

The idea would be to spot your role in this push-pull dynamic and catch it before it begins. What are your automatic thoughts and fears that lead to the expectations and suggestions? As you get better at spotting your own habits, you will start seeing your son as the young man he is, not just as a teen who easily quits. When you take your anxiety out of this dynamic, we see that your son has many interests; he just never felt free to pursue them. Or, we may see that he feels lost and needs outside support. Either way, everything begins with you changing your behaviors.

As you make these changes, aspire to create a different type of relationship with your son. This relationship would not include any hobbies or tasks; instead, focus on connecting with your son for no other reason than he is alive. There are no expectations. This unconditional positive regard, a term that refers to complete acceptance and love of yourself or someone else, is the fastest way to all good things, because people feel safe and relaxed when they are loved without conditions. And when people feel secure, they tend to grow and develop to their fullest potential — whatever that looks like.

You may fear that you will never have another expectation of your son, but worry not: You will. For now, building your relationship takes priority, as much as if it were drinking water, eating or sleeping.

There are a slew of books that can help you, including Christine Carter’s “The New Adolescence,” Harold S. Koplewicz’s “The Scaffold Effect,” “The Self-Driven Child” by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, “Thrivers” by Michele Borba and “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety” by John Duffy. Don’t read them all at once. See what speaks to you, and relax into it. Good luck.

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