When Is It OK for Your Child to Quit? Interview with Jennifer Abbey, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

Tired and defeated, we trekked up the hill from the soccer field to our car. No, it wasn’t our son who felt this way… it was us: good ‘ol mom and dad. We had just spent the last hour beyond stressed and frustrated, trying to get our 3-year-old son to stand on the soccer field for more than 3 seconds. Our expectations were frighteningly low. You don’t want to wear your shin guards? Fine. You’re nowhere near the ball anyway. You want an M&M every time you get up from your kid-sized lawn chair to go onto the field? You got it! You want me to promise you a trip to the opportunistic ice cream man sitting in the parking lot if you kick the soccer ball just once? Sure, honey. Whatever. Anything, as long as you show up. As long as you don’t quit.

In today’s culture, moms and dads are getting blamed for raising children who don’t know how to deal with hardship and who need instant gratification for everything in their lives. In turn, parents are scared they’re sending harmful messages to their kids when they let them quit an activity. After all, not sticking with something when you made a commitment has many negative connotations and could affect a child’s behavior and work ethic throughout his entire life. Sure, the activity might not be age appropriate. Sure, the other kids, teacher or coach could be making the activity unbearable. Sure, your child might genuinely dislike playing soccer even though all of his friends seem to love it but still, parents feel like quitting is not an option. Or is it? To help us navigate through this tricky parental territory I interviewed Clinical Psychologist, Jennifer Abbey, Ph.D.

BN: What are the first steps to take when a child expresses a desire to quit an activity?
JA: When a child asks to quit an activity, the first step a parent should take is to empathize with & really listen to their child. Whether due to their own anxieties or fear of other parents’ reactions, too often parents rush to push the child back into the activity and close down the conversation: “You’re going to soccer class & that’s final”. A more open approach not only allows for the child to feel validated, but teaches crucial communication and problem solving skills. The child and parent are no longer pitted against each other, and instead become a team united in solving the underlying cause of the child’s reaction.

BN: What types of questions should be asked or what should a parent look for when determining the best course of action?
JA: Another area a parent should consider is the type and intensity of the child’s emotional reaction. For example, is the child showing signs of significant anxiety such as trouble sleeping or stomachaches before the activity? Or is the child mildly disappointed that she wasn’t put on the team with her friends? When there are more severe and persistent emotional reactions, a parent should consider if the challenge is too far out of the child’s “work zone”. Parents should ask themselves, is my child being challenged in a way that will afford the benefits of learning commitment and bravery, or is the child so overwhelmed that this learning process is no longer relevant? For a child with a more mild response, parents may want to implement a reward system so as to recognize the child’s perseverance and to increase motivation to face the challenge.

BN: Could you elaborate on the reward system? Is the goal of intrinsic motivation at risk if a parent bribes or rewards their child?
JA: Parents often confuse a reward system, or positive reinforcement, with bribery. They are actually two very different concepts. In bribery, the parent gives the reward PRIOR to the desired behavior. For example, a parent offers the child a bag of candy on the way to gymnastics class if he/she promises to participate the entire time. Having already received the reward, the child most likely will “forget” the promise and the parent will be left feeling angry & frustrated. Instead, positive reinforcement operates by providing a reward to the child AFTER having delivered the desired behavior. For example, a boy earns an extra board game with dad for going up to bat in his baseball game even though he’s scared of the ball.

Some parents question whether providing extrinsic rewards reduces intrinsic motivation. In an ideal world, our children would be intrinsically motivated to do all the activities we sign them up for, to clean up their rooms, and to eat all their vegetables at dinner. In reality, there is a middle ground where providing small rewards to establish and encourage behavior is sometimes a necessary precursor to the intrinsic motivation. In situations where quitting an activity is at stake, rewarding the child’s participation teaches qualities such as perseverance, bravery, facing one’s fears, and tolerance of negative emotions which will only serve to increase motivation in the future.

In terms of setting up a reward system, it is essential that parents involve their child in the discussion of why it’s being implemented and how it will function. Parents will often say to me, “I’ve tried a reward system before and it NEVER works”. Usually there are two major reasons. First, the child has no idea what the behavior is that will earn them their rewards. For example, mom tells the child “Be a good boy at camp today and you’ll earn your reward”. What does being a “good boy” mean? Be specific. Second, the child does not know when they will have the opportunity to receive their reward or they have no input into the specific rewards. Positive reinforcement works best if it is provided close in time to the desired behavior and if the child is motivated by the rewards. Children love helping parents generate a list of rewards. Include them!

BN: What measures could parents take to prevent negative side effects if quitting turns out to be the best solution?
JA: If the parent and child decide that quitting the activity is the best choice, parents should work with the child to find a replacement activity or experience that will challenge the child to face their fears or tolerate uncomfortable feelings but do so at a level that is productive instead of damaging. How this replacement activity functions will depend partly on age. For preschool children, parents may suggest that the child watch the activity from the side for a period of time. For an elementary school child who is overwhelmed about being part of a large team sport, parents may suggest that they pursue an activity with a smaller number of kids as a step towards becoming more comfortable in a particular environment.

BN: What happens if the child wants to quit for social reasons having nothing to do with the activity itself?
JA: If the child is asking to quit the activity because of social problems, the parent should evaluate multiple factors. First, is this a new situation or is it a pattern of social difficulties? Second, is the child being subjected to repetitive, intentional, and unwanted aggressive acts by another child or children? Although at times challenging, parents should also consider what role their child is playing in the social difficulties. Social success is a two-way street and reflecting on their child’s role in the social difficulty can optimize their chances at generating a helpful and productive plan.

BN: When is it the right time to reach out for outside help (i.e. from teacher, coach, principal, therapist, etc.)?
JA: Anytime a child asks to leave a program, parents should solicit the feedback of the adult leading the program. These individuals have a window into the direct experience of the child and can provide parents with valuable perspective. In addition, teachers and coaches are experts in navigating the common challenges of the given developmental period, and can partner with parents and children to solve the specific problem. If parents recognize that their child is becoming involved in a repetitive pattern of avoidance & withdrawal secondary to anxiety or social difficulties, it may be time to involve a professional. Psychologists and social workers can perform important evaluations to help parents better understand the nature of the difficulty and generate an appropriate intervention/treatment plan.

BN: How does the age of the child factor into this particular issue? For example, when children are very young, parents often sign their children up for a myriad of activities despite protestations because they think their child might eventually learn to like the activity. Parents might also encourage their children to stick with certain activities with a “you’ll thank me later” philosophy in mind (i.e. sports for boys). What are your thoughts about that?
JA: Regardless of age, parents should talk to and involve their children in decisions about registering for activities. If a parent feels that it is important for their child to participate in a sport, for example, they should be prepared to talk to their child about what sport they think they would enjoy most. For preschoolers, sometimes it’s as simple as providing a choice between two activities in a given area (baseball or soccer, ballet or tap). By providing a choice even between two options, the parent gives the child locus of control, or agency, and this will greatly enhance their motivation to participate. Parents should always keep in mind how their own anxieties factor into the decision making process. I always ask parents to think “What is the worst case scenario if my child doesn’t participate in this activity?” in order to gain some perspective. In the end it’s all about balance. Don’t push too hard or too little. Apply gentle but steady pressure to teach your child that you believe in them and that you will be behind them as they reach for new goals and face new challenges.

Thank you, Dr. Abbey, for shedding some light on an important issue many parents face today.

Jennifer Abbey, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate at Positive Developments, a group private practice in Millburn, New Jersey. Her full bio and more information can be found at http://www.positivedevelopments.net.

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