Q: During many play activities, our 4-year-old daughter becomes quite emotional about anything she perceives she cannot do. This could be creating something out of Play-Doh, trying to draw something or throwing a ball. She oftentimes doesn’t even try, fail, then breaks down. She simply breaks down before even trying, crying and yelling “I can’t do [x].”
Moreover, when we try to come alongside to show her how to do something, she becomes stubborn and obstinate, showing no patience or desire to learn. The overall theme is “If it doesn’t come naturally to me, I don’t want to do it.”
We’re not sure if this is typical 4-year-old behavior, or if this something unusual about her temperament. When I’m around and my daughter acts like this, I often tell her, “In our family, we don’t say ‘I can’t do it.’ We try to do it, and if we have trouble, we ask for help and try again.” How can we help her overcome this giving up and keep trying?
A: I love this question because all too often, we gloss over or ignore or move past this kind of behavior—or get impatient with the child who exhibits it. But we miss many teaching opportunities and bonding times with our kid when we take shortcuts to training.
As to your question about whether this is typical kid behavior—it is. Some kids are more prone to this type of behavior than others. Usually, it’s just a stage, but that doesn’t mean you simply let her get away with it, so to speak. While you can’t argue/reason a child out of her emotional response, you can guide her in learning to overcome that response. For example, one of my daughters cries when she’s frustrated with herself that she can’t do something and has since she was a toddler. We’ve helped her with coping mechanisms to guide her past the unwanted tears and encouragement to press on through the difficult subject or project.
So here’s what I’d do if she were my daughter: Ignore her outbursts of saying “I can’t do X.” She’s responding in the moment, and it’s better to leave her alone to calm down than to try to encourage her to try again. Once she’s calm, you can ask her if she wants to try it again. If she still says no, then leave her be. Telling her your family doesn’t say we can’t do it is great—keep saying that to all your kids—but it’s better to let her figure some things out for herself.
But, and this is key, give her more opportunities to fail and try again by giving her tasks or chores she might not be able to do perfectly, or things she’ll need to try again and again to do. Kids always want the easy way out and not trying is the easy way. Also show her how to break what look like insurmountable tasks into small increments, like getting upset that she can’t make a dog out of clay. Tell her to start with the body, just work on the body, then progress to adding legs, etc. Some kids get overwhelmed by the big picture (can’t see the trees for the forest). When she’s calm after an incident, start to show her how to accomplish what she wants to accomplish, but try not to force her. When she gets discouraged, pause to give her a chance to recover. You can encourage her to calmness by having her take a deep breath, stand on one foot, do jumping jacks, when you see her start to get emotional.
Much of parenting is figuring out how much to push a kid—when to step back and when to step up. You’ll discover that balance as your daughter grows, and as long as you’re giving her plenty of love and a safe environment in which to fail, she’ll figure it out and learn how to move past failure into success.