Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: What Can I Do to Keep My Teen from Giving Up When Things Get Tough?

Getting a D on a math test can be debilitating for a teenager with ADHD. One small setback may lead to an “I give up” attitude. How do you get your teenager to endure setbacks and solve problems? Here, learn about resilience strategies.

Q: “My daughter easily gives up when she faces challenges, and lacks the grit to stick with something hard and solve problems. What’s worse is that she acts as if she doesn’t care, which makes most adults and teachers give up on her. How can I motivate and train my daughter to be more resilient in the face of academic and social challenges?”
SF Mom

Dear SF Mom,

When I ask teens with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), “Do you want to improve your grades,” I get the same answer from straight-A students as I do from those whose grades dip into the D range: “I do.” While the anxious teen who frets over a B+ is easy to spot, children like your daughter manifest their stress in different, less obvious ways. Overwhelmed by pressure they feel cannot be managed, they choose to opt out of the competition all together. This is why I call them “opt-outs.”

Many things can stifle motivation, including fear of failure, boredom, and the inability to make sacrifices now for a future payout. When young, children need external motivators and respond well to earning video games after they clean their room or losing a privilege if they don’t. These methods not only lose their effectiveness as children get older, but they also get worse results. We want kids to pursue goals for their own sake, not because they are being forced. To do so, they need the grit and resilience your daughter seems to lack.

Here is where to start helping: take out a ruler and use it as a scale from 1 to 12. Ask your daughter to show you how important school is to her. Do the same for friends, sports, and her other interests. I would bet good money she cares more about school than you think she does. If I am right, ask her what is holding her back from getting better grades. She will likely tell you the teachers are boring and that she will never have to use algebra or history. Acknowledge her feelings by saying, “I can see why you feel that way,” and then ask, “Is there anything else holding you back?” If you hit a dead end, plant a seed by saying, “I know I have sometimes felt that it’s better not to try, than to try and fail.”

[Read This: Can I Save My Teen From Failure?]

Next, borrow a play from Carol Dweck’s wonderful book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ask these questions:

  • Do you think your intelligence is something very basic about you that can’t change very much?
  • Agree or disagree: “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.”
  • Agree or disagree: “No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it a bit.”

According to Dweck, people who believe they can get smarter have a growth mindset. When facing a challenge, they know if they try harder, practice, or learn a new skill, they will get to beat it. They get the confidence to push through feelings of self-doubt by telling themselves, “I don’t know how to do this yet.”

Those with a fixed mindset believe people are stuck with the smarts or talent they had at birth. Therefore, when something does not come easily, it means you don’t have the talent or intelligence to master it. It is safer to give up than to show others your limitation. (For more about mindsets, purchase Dr. Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

My favorite book about motivation is The Little Engine That Could. Reminding teens of the book’s mantra always gets a smile: “I think I can, I think I can.” The Little Engine had something psychologists call “self-efficacy.” This is the belief that you have the competence to succeed. People who think they can do better, do better.

[True Grit: Turning Your Teen Into a Trooper]

Your daughter is also caught in a web of anxious thoughts that distort reality. For example, she tells herself that her day was crummy because of the D she got on her math test. A mood disorder does not remember the B+ she got on an English paper, or her promotion to first chair in orchestra. Anxiety turns everything into a catastrophe. The thought pattern goes something like this: that D will ruin her final grade, she won’t get into honors math next year, or AP math the next, and then she won’t get into college.

Help your daughter differentiate her distorted fear of failure thoughts from those grounded in reality. Getting a D on a test stinks, but she still has time to recover before the end of the year. Remind her that bad feelings are like the weather: they are constantly in flux. It does not rain forever, nor will it always be sunny. Dr. Tamar Chansky has written a number of books like Freeing Your Child From Anxiety that offer parents practical strategies to help their children beat back anxious thinking.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.