Why Isn’t My Child Succeeding?

April 13, 2022

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Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Beau Black

It’s common to worry about your child’s future, and it can be frustrating to see them struggle in school or life. For some children, issues can arise as a result of trauma. Others may not have learned the skills that enable them to succeed. If you’re one of those frustrated parents who have thought, My child is lazy, or perhaps directionless, the good news is there are ways to help, even if more acute problems such as law-breaking or addiction are part of the problem.

For the former set, acknowledging and treating unresolved trauma is crucial to moving forward. For others, the key to change may mean letting them learn to persevere and problem-solve on their own so that their current struggles don’t metastasize into something worse, says interventionist Dr. Louise Stanger.

A pattern of trauma during childhood can lead to chronic emotional problems, trouble paying attention, and problems relating to their peers.

She recounts two stories of parents who reached out to her about their adult children in crisis: One, in her mid-20s, dealt with rage issues, anxiety, deep resentment of her mother, and substance abuse; the other, in his mid-30s, spent his days at home drinking and playing video games. One was described as having “never wanted for anything,” while the other was “bailed out” every time he got in trouble. One was a rage monster who rarely left the house, and the other wouldn’t get off the couch. What these struggling adults both had in common was that their parents consistently gave them everything they wanted and rescued them from the consequences of their actions.

The Trauma Connection

Whether it’s your child’s personal experience, or something the entire family experienced, trauma marks a turning point in the previous life trajectory, according to ExploringYourMind.com. Some examples of family trauma include a violent event, severe addiction problem, sudden death, or family member’s troubling condition. The fallout from this can take the form of depression, guilt or shame, and problems with addiction, which, left untreated or unresolved can set a child up for lifelong problems.

Trauma can be physical or emotional, the result of one event or many, and may even be hard to identify since the person who experienced it doesn’t always realize it at the time. A pattern of trauma during childhood can lead to chronic emotional problems, trouble paying attention, and problems relating to their peers.

The Necessity of Coping Skills

Along with necessary life skills — from making a bed and doing laundry, to cooking, shopping, or paying bills — children need a basic set of coping skills to deal with what life throws at them. In some cases, development can be hindered by well-intentioned parents who run interference, blocking consequences from their child’s life. Dr. Stanger observes that such children “have been treated in a way that is ultimately wounding to them,” having been given too much with too little expected of them.

Learning to do the hard work of understanding a subject, mastering a skill, or persevering when it’s difficult, frustrating, or seemingly impossible sets a child up for success. The same goes for experiencing appropriate rewards and consequences.

Learning to do the hard work of understanding a subject, mastering a skill, or persevering when it’s difficult, frustrating, or seemingly impossible sets a child up for success.

There’s nothing wrong with growing up in affluence, but everyone needs a certain level of life competence. Some of this comes from struggling through problems, figuring out solutions, and learning to be responsible for oneself. It’s clear to college professors, employers, and peers when someone has done this hard work and when they have not.

Suffering from Affluenza

The extreme version of the overindulged child given no limits led to the coining of the term “affluenza.” It came to public awareness in part thanks to the high-profile criminal case of a Fort Worth-area teenager who, driving under the influence, struck and killed four people. He showed little remorse, and his lawyers successfully argued he “couldn’t really understand what he did” because of his affluent family and privileged childhood. A soon-to-retire judge agreed, and, in a move excoriated by the public, let him off on probation. He quickly violated his probation, fled the country with his mother, was arrested in Mexico, and ended up serving two years jail time, The New York Times reports.

Those who suffer from affluenza, Investopedia reports, may “have trouble functioning in everyday society and distinguishing between right and wrong because the world of privilege they live in insulates them from the rest of the world and prevents them from developing empathy.” This is not a widely accepted diagnosis, but it does give a label to a sad phenomenon that’s become more common.

How to Motivate A Child Who Is Unmotivated

Children subconsciously crave boundaries and structure. When they’re given appropriate structure and discipline, they can thrive. When they are not, it can lead to lifelong issues. Dr. Louise Stanger says the world they live in is one in which “their desires and needs reign as of the utmost importance.” Taking steps to halting this can help them.

She suggests a therapeutic approach that helps parents reclaim their role by “setting limits, providing discipline, [and] creating and enforcing healthy behaviors.” This involves establishing new boundaries, which may be difficult and met by strong resistance at first, but must be endured. Dr. Stanger suggests creating a plan or change agreement to document new roles, behaviors, and expectations.

If you’re the frustrated parent of an unmotivated child who needs help finding a path toward success, contact us at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center. We’re available to help you and your child take the first steps to getting back on track.