Dr Richard C. Woolfson
It’s frustrating to watch your child try to do something on her own – like putting her shoes on – and then fall short of her target. However, you are proud that she tried. It’s even more frustrating if she sits passively waiting for you to do the work for her, when you know she can cope on her own.
Here are some of the reasons that your child might decide not to do something for herself despite her ability, such as dressing or washing:
1. Attention She may enjoy the attention that her inactivity draws from you – by refusing to act independently, she knows that you will be forced to spend time with her.
2. Control Your child may have discovered from past experience that if she doesn’t move, you’ll eventually step in and do it for her. Psychologists call this “learnt helplessness”.
3. Confidence Even though she has the capability, she may lack self-confidence and see herself as more dependent than she really is.
4. Motivation Some children lack the internal motivation to progress. The normal excitement that most children get from new achievements can sometimes be missing.
Could any of these reasons explain why she won’t complete the task on her own even though you know she has the necessary skills? The more you understand what makes your child tick, the more easily you will be able to help her develop a more positive attitude.
MAKING THE CHANGE
Have a planned approach for change. If you know that your four-year-old can complete the activity by herself, make up your mind to not do this for her, no matter how pressurised you feel. If you intervene consistently, she has no incentive to take more responsibility herself. And don’t get angry with her – stay calm and determined.
Set small, easily achievable targets to begin with. Avoid putting a challenge that stretches your child’s abilities to the extreme. She’s more likely to tackle something that requires only a little effort. Although you know that she is capable of much more, at this stage, you are only trying to alter her attitude. Choose carefully – success breeds success, and every achievement boosts her self-esteem.
Remember to give your child sufficient time. If she feels pressurised to complete the activity too quickly, she probably won’t even try. So when you want her to put on her sweater without your help, don’t wait until you are ready to leave the house together. Ask her to put on her clothes with plenty of time to spare before you are due to go out, because this allows her to prepare at her own pace. In due course, you can decrease the amount of preparation time as she becomes more skilled at coping independently.
Once she completes the easy job, give her lots of praise and encouragement. Tell her how delighted you are that she managed it all by herself, and emphasise that this makes life easier for you. It helps to point out the practical impact of her independence. Over the next few weeks, very gradually increase your expectations of her, acknowledging her achievements each time. Follow these strategies consistently and you’ll notice that she will soon have an I-can-and-I-will attitude.