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Display of Inadequacy: Children Who Give Up

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Helpless, hopeless kids who give up easily are said to demonstrate a display of inadequacy. If you have a child who just can’t seem to live up to his own expectations, there are things you can do to help. You will learn the difference between praise and encouragement as well as the most effective way to discipline these kids.

This article will address the final of the four major goals of children’s misbehavior. In the previous three articles, we have addressed attention-seeking, controlling, and revenge-seeking behaviors. Dinkmeyer and McKay proposed this typology of misbehavior in their book entitled STEP Parenting. It provides parents with helpful insights into the reasons behind their children’s difficult behaviors.

What a display of inadequacy looks like. Children who feel inadequate believe that they are incapable of performing up to their expectations or the expectations of the significant others in their lives. They think, “I am no good. Nothing I do is any good. Why bother?” Here are some behaviors these children may display:

  • Refusal to try new things
  • Giving up easily
  • Disparaging comments such as, “I am no good”
  • Poor school performance
  • Excessive timidness
  • Lack of confidence

What a display of inadequacy feels like to you. Parents of children who are displaying feelings or beliefs of inadequacy often feel like giving up themselves. They feel hopeless, that things can never improve and that their child will never change. Discouragement is their constant companion.

What his behavior tells you. These children lack confidence in themselves, their worth and their abilities. Parents of such children would be wise to monitor for a possible underlying depressive disorder by taking the following factors and symptoms into consideration: a family history of chemical depression, anhedonia (lack of enjoyment in activities previously enjoyed), sleep disturbance, change in appetite, difficulty concentrating and anxiety.

How to correct a display of inadequacy. These children need lots of encouragement to counteract their feelings of inadequacy. Encouragement is quite different from praise however and parents would be wise to learn the distinction. Encouragement is specific and praise is general. Encouragement focuses on the effort rather than the results. Encouragement addresses the child’s experience but praise addresses the adult’s feelings. Instead of saying: “You are wonderful! I am so proud of you!” (praise), try saying: “You have put so much effort into that drawing. Look how nice it is coming out! You must be so pleased!” (encouragement).

Parents also need to avoid discouraging remarks such as, “Oh, just give it to me, I’ll do it for you” or “Hurry up!” These children need to have their effort encouraged, no matter how small. Noticing incremental improvements and verbalizing your faith in their ability (“I know you can do it!”) will go a long way in combating displays of inadequacy. You can read more on ways to increase your child’s self confidence here.

In these last four articles, we have covered the four main causes of misbehavior among children. Hopefully you now feel equipped to use your new “secret decoder ring” the next time you are faced with troubling behaviors in your children. With a little investigation and self-reflection you will be able to uncover their hidden motives. But more importantly, you will know how to best address them.

Image by Phan Minh Cuong An from Pixabay
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.


  • This was my 4 year old daughter to a T. She was refusing to try anything new, refusing to go to preschool, and was quitting at everything (one small token try, then “I can’t do it.”). The battles about going to preschool where awful and I was pretty much ready to pull the plug on it when I came across this idea of “inadequacy” being the reason for her resistance. It was ground-breaking and probably life-changing for us. I started to work on building her confidence with encouragement rather than praise, and also letting her “be in charge” for periods of time here at home so that she’d start to feel more capable of being in charge of herself while at school. I also discovered the concept of social stories which we used to address a few areas of school that really scared her (i.e. there where a few boys who tended to chase at the park, and, one day the smoke alarm went off) and build up her confidence in handling those issues effectively if they happened to occur again, rather than, just trying to reassure her that they wouldn’t. I can happily say that my daughter just graduated preschool and loved every day of it for the past 4 months. I’m so thankful we didn’t quit.
    She’s a different kid now, look out world! Thanks for a great article that pointed me in the right direction right when I needed it most. I believe God helped me find it.

    • Hi Teara,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am so grateful that God used this article to help you better understand your daughters behavior. I commend you for being so in tune with her and responsive to her needs. May God bless you.


  • I have the same issue with my 9 year old grandson that we raise. He acts totally different when he’s around my husband they can have normal conversations about sports or anything else. As soon as it’s just him and I he totally changes he wants me to repeat things over and over he just demands my constant attention by keeping the conversation going I having me repeat things over and over again. He has been diagnosed with ADHD as well as o d d does the o d d have anything to do with this Behavior? And what is the best way to deal with that behavior?

    • Hi Angie,
      ODD is oppositional defiant behavior disorder. Kids with ODD tend to have anger outbursts, revenge-type behaviors, and difficulty with authority. Your grandson seems to struggle just in certain situations (which is common in milder forms of ODD). The diagnosis can be helpful, but only as a starting point. Maybe it is situational because your husband and your grandson have a different type of relationship? – maybe your husband isn’t taking such an instructional role in his life (ie: asking him to do things). Some kids with ADHD struggle with executive functioning. You may need to break instructions down for him into bite-sized steps. If he is simply doing it for attention, on the other hand, ask yourself what other ways you can engage with him that will fill his need to get attention from you. Have an honest conversation with him about what you have noticed and how you would like to help him.

      I hope that helps,

  • I have read through all of your literature , and while I agree with a lot . I have trouble believing that the child is feeling worthless by the behaviour.
    As a Grandmother , my 10yr old grandaughter delights in pushing my buttons, and shows no remorse, knowing it is upsetting me . we have always told her how much we love her, and praise her when applicable, and I am getting to the stage were I think I am losing the battle. any help??

    • Hi Margaret,

      I am sorry that you are struggling with your granddaughter. Is it possible that there are other forces at work in her life that could be impacting your efforts to encourage, empathize and correct her? I don’t know your family situation, but if your granddaughter is dealing with ongoing stressors in her life, they can serve to counteract the positive feedback that you are pouring into her. It is often helpful to get to the root of the issue. People’s hearts (like physical cuts) heal best when the deepest part of the wound is treated before we try to apply a band-aid. Maybe your granddaughter would benefit from the caring, listening ear of a child counselor. Sometimes an objective person is the best one to treat those kinds of wounds.

      God bless,

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