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How to Help a Child Who Wants to Give Up

Kids who give up easily are said to demonstrate a display of inadequacy. Here we explore what’s behind the behavior and how to help a child who wants to give up.

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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. We can’t know how until we know why.

This post will address “display of inadequacy,” or children who give up in the face of difficulties.

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” or “I can’t”
  • Poor school performance
  • Excessive timidness
  • Lack of confidence

NOTE: Children who display these behaviors may have underlying learning or mood disorders. It is important for parents who are concerned about these behaviors to rule out depression, social anxiety or a learning disability such as dyslexia. In addition, children with inattentive type of ADHD who have gone undiagnosed or treated for years can develop these types of behaviors. Seek out a professional educational or mental health assessment if you are concerned. And for a child who is suddenly demonstrating such behaviors, it it important to have a professional assess them for thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

What a display of inadequacy behaviors feel 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 will never improve and that their child will never change. They can also experience feelings of anger as their frustrations mount in the face of ineffective efforts to help their child.

What display of inadequacy behavior tells you

These children lack confidence in themselves, their worth and their abilities. As stated above, 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. These can all indicate clinically significant issues.

How to address a display of inadequacy

You may want to throw up your hands in despair in the face of a child who re-buffs all your efforts to help them keep at something or engage in something that you feel should be easy for them. Here are some things you can to do help a child struggling with a desire to give up.

1) Provide encouragement

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: “Good job! You did great!” (praise), try saying: “You put so much effort into that drawing. Look how amazing it turned out!  You must be so pleased!” (encouragement).

Don’t get hung up on this though. You will not damage your child with praise once in a while. Think of it like junk food – great as an occasional treat, but not something you want as your main diet.

2) Chain desirable behaviors

Attach success in one area to success in others. If your child learned to buckle his belt but is struggling with his shoelaces, remind him that buckling the belt was hard too but he did it. Link previous success to projections of success with the current struggle. But be sure to not minimize the current struggle either by saying something like, “Oh, this is easy. Just try harder.” Validate their current efforts and previous successes.

3) Let them struggle

It’s tempting to say, “Oh, just give it to me, I’ll do it for you” or “Hurry up!”  It’s important for parents of these kids to pad transitions for extra time with things like tying shoes and putting books in a back pack to allow time for the struggle. Anytime you see even the slightest progress in the midst of the effort to try lavish on the encouragement to keep going. Simply noticing what is happening is encouraging, such as, “You are grabbing the lace and moving it around the other one. You dropped it, but you are picking it back up to try again. You are keeping at it even though it is hard!” 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.

For ways to create a discipleship opportunity when faced with challenging behaviors, click here.

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.

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About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.


  • 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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