I receive many questions from parents and will, from time to time, feature these on my blog.  Here is a question that came in from a Mom who was seeking help for the frequent “I cant’s” she was hearing… 

Help for “I Can’t”

Question: My 2 ½ year old is always saying, “I can’t” when it comes to doing things I believe he’s able to do. I’m feeling so frustrated by this and wonder what I can do to help him (and me!)? I’m also worried about his self-confidence!

Answer: The “I can’t” stage is a tough one. Parents often feel torn about how to handle these two words. Some parents feel that they should step right in and help because it is their parental duty. Others feel that those two words are unacceptable and that their child must at least “try.”

The optimal way to handle this stage lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

First and foremost, being aware of our own feelings about the statement “I can’t,” can be useful in understanding and mitigating our reactions. For example, if your own parents didn’t have much tolerance for these words, you may have less patience when you hear them from your child. Rather than react with impatience, it can be helpful to recognize that these words are simply a communication of discouragement.

Here are 6 tips you can try to help move your child from “I can’t” to “I’m capable”:

1) Be sure your child is not overscheduled and do your best to ensure proper nap and bedtimes. – Young children can become easily overwhelmed, especially when they are tired. Whether they’ve had a long day at daycare/preschool or are simply feeling over stimulated, tired kids are simply less motivated to take on a regular or new task. In other words, they’re not trying to be difficult, they merely may not have the energy needed for the task at hand. I’ve seen many families where this phrase was used as the child’s way of telling the parents to “slow down.”

If you find that your child is having a hard time because he is tired, offer help. “I see you’re working so hard on that puzzle and the piece isn’t going in as you’d like. Would you like some help with that?”

2) Be aware of how much you may be stepping in/taking over. – It is normal and natural to want to step in and help your child, especially when you see he’s having a hard time. When we step in and take over too often, however, we inadvertently send our child the message that he’s not capable. Assuming you have taken the time to teach and model the skill he’s having difficulty with, avoid rushing in to fix or do the task for him. Instead, allow your child the space to try and let him know you are there if he needs you. Allowing our kids to struggle a bit, helps build their resilience and confidence muscles.

3) Validate feelings and brainstorm solutions. – When we validate, we empower. A child who feels heard and understood gains confidence in his abilities and will be more likely to “try.” For example, “Sweetie, I can see you are having a hard time getting your shoe on. It can be frustrating when it doesn’t go on as easy as you’d like. What do you think you could do to help that shoe get on that cute foot of yours?”

4) Use humor. – Getting silly is one way to engage your child and move him out of the “I can’t” stance, especially if he’s been able to do the very thing he’s saying he’s unable to do. For example, “Come here you Mr. I can’t get my shoe on! I’m going to get that foot! I wonder if you can protect that foot with your shoe? Here I come!!” We all know how much children love to play. By acting silly and getting the child laughing in this way, we help release some of the pent up emotions that are hijacking the more logical/rational part of his brain (the prefrontal cortex).

5) Regularly notice the efforts your child is making. – “Look at you working so hard on that puzzle.” “You’re really concentrating on building that tower.” Recognize the process and the journey, not just the end result. Research has shown that children who are encouraged for their efforts are more likely to stick with a task and take on a more challenging task in the future.

6) Break task into smaller steps and/or allow your child to take a break– If you see your child’s frustration level rising, slow down and break the task into smaller steps. “I can see this is getting frustrating. I would feel frustrated too. Let’s see if we can try this one step at a time.” You can also try offering a break. “I see you’ve been working on that tower for a while and it keeps tipping over. That can be frustrating. Would you like to take a break and help me in the kitchen? We can try building again in a few minutes.”

Sometimes our kids just need a little extra support and attention to help them through their challenging moments. When we are able to view “I can’t” as a communication of a need (in this case, a need for encouragement), we offer our child what he deserves most –  our understanding and acceptance.


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