Filling the Developmental Tool Kit When Your Child Hits the Wall

When your child’s capacity hits its limits: it’s time to withhold judgement & fill the developmental tool kit. “He just isn’t motivated.” “She is so obsessed with the social scene she can’t reach her academic potential.” “He used to be such a happy kid.” “She used to love learning.” These are the observations regularly shared in our office by worried and sometimes frustrated parents.

It’s hard for parents to know what they are facing in their apparently faltering child. Is it normal development that, ridden out with a certain patient resignation, will resolve itself with time? Or is it something more worrisome, more telling of an inherent fault or weakness in the child or adolescent that will derail the bright future parents have dreamed of and worked selflessly to promote?

The best parenting in the world can’t keep certain students from “hitting the wall” at points along their odyssey of the formal education system. Dropping grades, distracting social issues, depression, anxiety and withdrawal, acting out, school refusal, irritability, opposition and defiance, drug and alcohol use — “hitting the wall” can take many forms, from subtle to overtly destructive, and can occur at seemingly any point in the student’s traverse of formal education.

When parents, teachers, coaches and all other well-meaning adults in the student’s life have exhausted the usual methods employed to support and motivate the struggling young person, “incentivizing” that student to be more successful inevitably becomes a failed stew of strict consequences and ultimatums mixed with accommodating and covering for the student’s “shortcomings.” Meanwhile, their struggles take on more alarming significance.

It’s best to see this faltering as a transition or adjustment to something novel in the student’s environment that is taxing to his or her developmental skills at that point in time. It’s equally important to try to resist the natural inclination to attribute these struggles to some less-than-desirable feature of the student’s character.

Most children and adolescents thrive in the warm glow of affirmation. Struggling students don’t typically choose behaviors that result in a painful cycle of negative feedback.

A more nuanced and informed understanding of the child or adolescent’s inherent capacities allows us to build a tool kit with strategies and skills that better equip the student to address environmental demands more effectively. Unaddressed or attributed to some failing in character, the student’s struggling behaviors can become part of an abiding set of maladaptive skills and a negative self concept that will serve no one well. So reach out to those who can help build those developmental tools and avoid judging that child or adolescent with labels better suited to describe character than unpack and understand capacity.

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