This week’s question is from Emma,
“I’m struggling with my sixth-grade daughter who refuses to ask for help, even when it’s obvious she needs it. This is becoming a major issue with school assignments as she is encountering some material she doesn’t instantly understand. It’s also an issue at home with various things, as she’ll say she understands something and knows what to do, but then it becomes clear she actually doesn’t. I have tried talking with her about it, I tried reassuring her that we all need help sometimes, and it’s okay to ask, but beyond that, I’m just not sure what else to do. Any suggestions are welcome.”
In this episode, I will address how to help kids when they are resistant to asking for help or have a low tolerance for making mistakes. As adults, we can teach them how to overcome any uncomfortable feelings by modeling in ways that show them it is a normal part of life even as adults. I will give you many scenarios and tips to do just that in the home, at school, or in public settings.
You can submit a question by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Podcast Question.”
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Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:50
Acknowledging Emotions Around Asking for Help … 00:01:50
Allow Kids to Sit with Their Feelings … 00:04:50
Normalizing Mistakes & the Associated Feelings … 00:06:15
Modeling Mistakes & Working Through Them … 00:08:36
Praising and Spotlight Efforts in Hard Things … 00:10:52
Start Practicing Mistakes When Stakes are Low … 00:12:40
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are going to talk about helping kids get more comfortable with making mistakes, specifically how to ask for help when they need it, but are resistant to asking for it. The question today comes to us from Emma, who writes: “I’m struggling with my sixth-grade daughter who refuses to ask for help, even when it’s obvious she needs it. This is becoming a major issue with school assignments as she is encountering some material she doesn’t instantly understand. It’s also an issue at home with various things, as she’ll say she understands something and knows what to do, but then it becomes clear she actually doesn’t. I have tried talking with her about it, I tried reassuring her that we all need help sometimes, and it’s okay to ask, but beyond that, I’m just not sure what else to do. Any suggestions are welcome.” Well, Emma, many parents deal with this at some point or another, and you have a sixth-grade daughter, but this actually can come up with kids of all ages. I’ve seen this come up with young kids, as well as all the way through teen and even young adult kids, so I’m going to provide some big ideas and some strategies that hopefully will apply to lots of you who are dealing with this.
A few of the big picture ideas: The first is that we really want to acknowledge the struggle that a kid is having with this and the underlying feelings around this. It can be easy to jump into trying to address the surface level behavior of the kid not asking for help. But we have to back up first and really look at what is underlying this struggle or this resistance around asking for help, and we need to get to the emotions of it. We need to help kids understand what are emotions that are happening for them that are feeding into this. Very often, it’s embarrassment, shame, anxiety, disappointment. It can be all of these things and more. It can be driving this sort of, “Not only can I not accept or tolerate making mistakes, but also I cannot or will not ask for help around these things.” So connecting to those underlying emotions, what is it that is really going on there? Sometimes kids know, sometimes they don’t, it depends on their age, depends on how attuned they are to their feelings. So in uncovering this and talking with kids about this, sometimes we as the adult need to offer some options or give some suggestions based on our experience of what might be happening. Like, “Wow, I wonder if you are feeling kind of embarrassed around that,” or “Lots of kids feel kind of nervous, or anxious about asking for help, or they get anxious about what the other person might think if they don’t know how to do something.” So we sometimes need to kind of get the ball rolling, to provide some suggestions of what might be going on with those underlying emotions, and then dialogue with kids about that, and see if they can then identify for them, what are the feelings that are going on that are feeding into this? And then we want to normalize those feelings. We want to acknowledge them and accept them. Whatever feeling your child is having around this, it’s okay. There aren’t good feelings and bad feelings or normal or abnormal feelings. Their feelings are all okay, so we want to acknowledge them. “Oh, I get it. you are feeling really embarrassed about having to raise your hand to ask for help, or you are feeling really anxious about what the teacher or the other kids will think if you need to ask for help for something.” We want to acknowledge it, and we want to accept it and say, “So many people feel that way”, and even provide some connection to our own experience of, “Oh, I remember feeling that way when I was your age,” or “Sometimes I still feel that way with my boss at work”, or whatever it might be.
And after we identify and acknowledge and accept those feelings, we want to allow ourselves and our child to just be with those feelings and not jump right into the let’s fix this mode. That is really important. We want to be with this kid in the space of, “Man, it’s really hard to feel those things.” That is key, because this teaches kids to be tolerant around the feelings that they are having. It teaches them to get more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable things. When we can do that for ourselves and our kids, man, does that unlock the door to so many things that they are able to handle better, they are able to be resilient around. So we want to really sit with these feelings and say, “Man, it’s so hard to feel those things. I know what that is like”, and be willing to just be in that space with them without jumping right to the solving or the, “You don’t need to feel this way”, or whatever. Recognizing it, being in it, letting them know, “Yeah, it is hard. This is something we deal with, and it’s okay that it’s tough.” So that is the first big picture idea.
The second big picture thing that we want to focus on is normalizing mistakes and the feelings that come with them. And to do this, there are several strategies that we can use around this. The first is to practice making mistakes intentionally. Now, this might sound ridiculous at first, but I think it’s a really important technique for kids of all ages, even good for ourselves as adults, to have some practice with intentionally screwing up. Because here’s the thing: Mistakes are going to happen. They are absolutely a part of life. There is no avoiding them or preventing them. So we want to normalize this for kids, that not only are you going to make mistakes, you are going to make lots of mistakes in your life, and it’s okay.” We can make mistakes, and also in doing that, practice getting used to the feelings that come along with making mistakes. So you can come up with lots of ways to practice this, depending on the age and preferences of your child. I have done this with kids. I have taken them out to the basketball hoop if they are into sports and basketball, and practice missing shots. We can do that with the wastebasket and ping pong balls, or wadding up paper and tossing it in and intentionally trying to miss. I have done it with young kids, saying, “Okay, here are some pitchers of water, and we are going to practice spilling when we pour it into the cup, or “Here is some paper. We are going to be using coloring book pages and some crayons, we are going to practice coloring outside the lines/we are going to tear the paper.” “We are going to practice spelling things wrong.” Whatever you can come up with. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, but the goal here is to intentionally make mistakes. Now sometimes, especially as they get older, kids will roll their eyes at this and say, “Ah”, but if we explain to them what we are doing, it then it makes more sense. “Oh, the only way that I can learn to tolerate and get used to the uncomfortable feelings that come with making mistakes is to practice feeling them. And I can take the power out of that by intentionally doing it.” And so that is a good way to normalize it and start to get kids more comfortable with this.
Also really helpful for you as the adult to model your own mistakes. Now kids might see you make mistakes, like “Oh, I was making these muffins for breakfast, and I totally lost track of where I was in the recipe and put the wrong thing in.” They might be there for you to spotlight in that moment that that happened. But you can also spotlight and talk about mistakes that you make when they are not around. “Oh man, let me tell you about this thing that happened at work today or when I was at the grocery store”, or whatever. So you are modeling and spotlighting your own mistakes, which again, takes some of the power out of them. It normalizes it. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, we all do this.” So model your own mistakes, model your own instances of not knowing. Maybe you forget, “Oh man, what do I have to do next here?”, and your child can help fill in the gap with that. Or maybe somebody asks you something, your child asks you something and you say, “Oh, man, you know what? Boy, I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m going to need to look that up or I’m going to need to ask somebody.” So you are looking for opportunities to spotlight this and model this for your child. And opportunities for asking for help. You might find some opportunities to ask your child for help, to ask your partner for help. You might talk about around the dinner table over something that you needed to ask for help for at work. This whole idea of modeling and spotlighting your own mistakes, not knowing, needing to ask for help and the feelings that you experienced with each like, “Oh man. I could not remember my password to get into the computer program that I needed when I got to work, and I felt so frustrated with myself because this is the third time this month that I have forgotten the password. I was feeling frustrated, also feeling really embarrassed, and I had to reach out to tech support and ask them for help with that, and man that felt embarrassing, because they have had to help me with it before, but I knew that it was important. I needed to get the password.” So, this is an example of how we can talk about this, not just the what happened, but also the feelings that we had and how we worked through that. So that is key.
Another piece of this is to make sure you are praising and spotlighting the effort that your child is making in wrestling with hard things, in feeling uncomfortable feelings, in managing difficult situations, and that you are not just reserving your praise or positive comments for whatever the final result or score or grade was, and that is key, especially for kids who do not have a lot of tolerance for distress or anxiety around their performance with things, around maybe their grades, or the score at the end of the game, or whatever. We want to make sure we are praising the process, praising what we notice about them being in the difficulty of those feelings and making it through, like, “Oh, man, I noticed when your team was down by 15 points, I could tell you were really feeling badly about that, but I watched you continue to huddle with the team, you went out there and you were running hard, and you were doing the plays. I could see that you are working really hard, even though you were feeling so frustrated/so embarrassed”, or whatever about it. That is where we want to spotlight that because in doing that, we are giving them a better focus, which is on the effort that they are making, that it’s not just about the final product, the final grade, the accomplishment; it’s about the process of getting there and the progress and the effort that we are making.
In practicing with kids around things like asking for help and making mistakes, it’s important that we don’t jump in and start with the toughest things or the areas where we are seeing this be a real problem. So in the situation that Emma is dealing with, it’s around her daughter, particularly with school, and asking for help in the classroom, or asking for help on assignments. I would not start with Emma practicing around this with those kinds of high stakes things because that is likely to bring a lot of resistance and a lot more intense emotions. Instead, I’m going to start with some lower stakes kinds of opportunities at home. We are going to practice with mistakes around spilling something, or that we can’t find something, or asking for help with minor kinds of things in a one-on-one situation at home. We are not going to jump right in and try to target dealing with this in tough public situations. So we want to practice with giving our kids something to do that they will need to ask for clarification, support, or help around. An example could be maybe she’s making a batch of cookies, and you know that the cookie sheets are going to be too high for her to reach, or maybe you have actually placed them somewhere different than where they normally are. What you are doing is setting up an opportunity for her to need to ask for some clarification or some help. “Hmm, I don’t know where the cookie sheets are/I can’t reach those/I can’t find them.” Opportunities to practice with that where there will naturally be a moment where some support is going to be needed, and it provides an opportunity for practicing and communicating that or asking for that. Now you don’t want to be praising her for doing that like, “Oh, good job asking for help with the cookie sheets!” That is likely to send most kids right back into “Oh my goodness, don’t pay attention to me about this, don’t spotlight this, I don’t want to do this.” You just let the learning experience be there. The experience of it is the learning. So you have the cookie sheet somewhere else, she needs to ask for where they are, you just let that stand for itself. You just be real casual about like, “Oh yeah, you know what, I think those got put back somewhere different, I think they are over here”, and then just drop it and let that be the experience. Let her have that moment of doing that and asking for the help or the support and not having it be a big deal. So looking for opportunities that you can set up, depending on the age, and the abilities, and the needs of your child, where it is very likely that they will need to come to you for some kind of clarification, support or help.
I think it’s also really beneficial for kids, to give them an opportunity to be a helper to someone else who has a need. This is sort of a reverse way of coming at it. This is a child who is struggling with their own feelings around needing to ask for help. By giving them an opportunity to be the helper, it again, just gets them comfortable with normalizing the fact that everybody needs help sometimes, and everybody is also capable of offering help at other times. It goes both ways. We have both in us. So maybe it’s running an errand for an elderly neighbor, maybe it’s saying, “Hey, I need you to watch your little brother for a few minutes while I make this phone call, I need you to help me with that.” Maybe it’s finding opportunities to help around the house, or at the grocery store, or any kind of helping role. What we are spotlighting here is that yeah, sometimes we need help, and sometimes we are the one providing help, and that is all normal, and we can do both things, and we act in both roles. And alongside this, I think letting your child be the one to teach you something, something that they are good at. Maybe it’s playing a video game that they love, or doing a craft, or maybe they read a book or watched a program about something and now they know a lot about it and you don’t. Let them be in the role of teaching you. This not only is good for them to step into that helper role, but you can model them being in the situation of being the person asking for help, or clarification, or more information. You can model that asking questions, asking for support, “Oh, man, what did you say about that when I get to this level in the in the video game?”, and modeling the asking for help, the reaching out to ask for support.
The last thing I will say about this is if the issue is embarrassment about the act of asking for help in a public setting — this issue with Emma’s daughter seems to be about more than that because it’s at home as well as at school, but some of you may have a child where the thing that is really getting in the way of them asking for help is when it is in a public setting like the classroom. So if that is an issue, all of the things that I’ve talked about will be helpful in working on that, but what we can also do is work with the child to come up with some options, some alternative ways that they can communicate that they need help or support. And not just in school. This can be in other places too. Sometimes it’s an important stepping stone, and kids can tolerate their discomfort more if they write it down. For example, they have a question about something at home, they could send a parent a text or write it down and slip it under their parent’s door, or in the classroom, they can write their question or their need on a piece of paper and set it on the teacher’s desk. Or maybe there is a hand signal that the teacher and the child set up that nobody else knows, that the child can just quietly use that signal to let the teacher know “I need some help. I need some support here.” Maybe it’s something you work out with the teacher, where if it’s a homework assignment that they are doing at home or something they are working on in the classroom, that they can just put a mark by it and turn the paper in and that will alert the teacher that the child needs help with it, and they can circle back then another time and work on it with them.
So lots of ways of doing this, and you need to be practicing with all the things that I talked about prior with helping kids get comfortable with these uncomfortable feelings, acknowledge those feelings, practice making mistakes, practice asking for clarification or help. All those things are important, but this is a specific strategy that you can use to support kids in these kinds of environments, and as a bridge to getting more comfortable to raising their hand and asking for help in the big classroom setting. These are some stepping stones that you can take: Writing it down, some of these signals, things like that.
So that is a lot of ideas around this. I hope that these things are helpful to Emma and for all of you who are looking for ways to support your kids around mistakes and getting more comfortable asking for help. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, email it to email@example.com. Thank you, as always, for listening, and I will catch you back here next time.