Emotional Competence

A few days ago, I asked Pea Pod (6) to pick up some pieces of food that had fallen on the floor during dinner time. I knew she would be squeamish—it was canned green beans and mashed potatoes, after all—so I offered her a paper towel to protect her fingers from slimy cold food and lots of encouraging words.

She still collapsed in a heap on the floor, and as tears began to stream down her face, she sobbed, “I can’t! I can’t!”

“Really?” I wanted to say. “You can’t bend down and pick up a few pieces of food off the floor? What, are your arms broken?”

Fortunately, my “time to be a good parent” sensor went off. I remained calm and let her spend the next forty-five minutes working through her issues with wet food remnants.

So why do kids say “I can’t” when you know that they can? You know they can because you saw them do it yesterday, or they did something much harder last week, or you saw their sibling who is six years younger do it earlier that same day.

I believe sometimes my kids know that they can, too, and they say “I can’t” just to avoid doing something unpleasant. But I also believe that there are many times when my kids don’t believe that they can because they don’t feel competent.

Competence is one of the basic human needs. It means that you feel like you can accomplish something, or that you can be successful at what you attempt. (To read more about competence, see my previous post.)

But competence is much more than just what you are capable of physically. In order to feel motivated to do something, you also have to feel emotionally competent.

Being a kid is hard. And being a kid is harder for some kids than it is for others.

Lima Bean (8) often struggles to complete simple tasks–such as brushing his teeth–if he is tired or hungry or receiving too many instructions at once. He will start to cry, get angry, and yell that “he can’t do it.” Now I know that he can physically brush his teeth. He does it all the time. But in the moment, emotional or mental or unrelated physical issues cloud his ability and remove his competence.

Pepper (10) is learning to play the violin. Again and again, when she hits something new and difficult, her initial reaction is to throw herself into her chair and proclaim, “I can’t do it!” This usually happens after she has tried and failed to be perfect the first time. She’s been learning the violin long enough now that we both know that “I can’t” almost always means she is one or two tries away from getting it right. But in the moment, she really does feel like it’s hopeless. She doesn’t feel competent and doesn’t want to keep going—even if she’s only moments away from success.

Some kids come to this Earth naturally feeling more competent than others. They trust themselves and are willing to give new things a try. They aren’t easily overwhelmed. They problem solve new situations, seeing them as an exciting challenge.

Other kids struggle breaking tasks down into manageable steps—they get easily overwhelmed. They look at something new with a lot of fear and trepidation. They don’t like to take risks—and they don’t want to fail.

These kids require a lot of additional patience and love. They need us, as parents, to help them feel like they can be competent. We have to provide a safe environment for them to practice failing so that they can succeed. We have to help them break down tasks and walk them through those tasks step by step. We have to be calm and collected as they work through intense emotions that come with not feeling capable and competent at a job that they have to do.

Do you have someone who says “I can’t” a lot? Do you want to throw your hands in the air and yell, “Yes, you can!”? Next time you have one of those moments, step back and try to figure out why they don’t feel competent. Is there something more going on? Could you sympathize more? Break down the steps? Encourage them to not be afraid to make mistakes?

Rarely, are there easy answers. But how we respond will either take them closer to feeling more competent or drive them farther away.

In future posts, I want to spend more time talking about specific things I’ve done to try and build competence in all my kids–and particularly those who need extra help. But I’d also love to hear how you handle emotional competence with your kids. What do you do when you hear “I can’t”?


Filed under Theory Behind It All

3 responses to “Emotional Competence

  1. Sara R

    When my kids think they can’t do it, I’ve shown them clips of Don Music from Sesame Street (“I’ll never get it; never never!!”). My kids love watching these: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrJnzBFzEEY&feature=related

  2. Scott

    Our daughter (12) had a church assignment. She was supposed to call an adult leader and ask him to give a talk at a youth conference. She procrastinated doing the assignment until the day before the deadline to report back about it. I came into the kitchen and found her standing with the phone in her hand saying how much she hated having church assignments. I asked what was wrong and she explained that she didn’t know what to say to the leader. For everyone else looking in on this situation, it seemed like an easy, straightforward task, but for our daughter it was very much like what you experienced with Pea Pod. My first reaction was to say, “You are making this much harder than it needs to be. The leader is a nice man and he won’t give you a hard time.” However, my “good parent” sensor clicked on and I said instead, “Sometimes it helps me when I have to do something like this that seems really hard to make some notes about what I want to say. Would you like me to help you write it out?” She grabbed a Post-it-Note and a pencil and very relieved said, “Yes.” I suggested several sentences to her and she then picked up the phone and made the call, doing a great job. She was physically capable of doing the task, but needed some emotional support for what felt like an overwhelming, risky task.

    Your thoughts in this blog are very important. Children, just like adults, have very different capacities to handle emotionally challenging situations, even when those situations don’t seem to be all that difficult from the outside looking in. Everyone is unique and needs support in unique ways. Some need detailed guidance, while others will bristle at having their hand held too much (especially when they get older). It’s so important to understand the individual. For parents raising more than one child, it’s critical not to fall into the trap of thinking there is a “one size fits all” approach. The hard part is that I’ve learned what my children need by seeing what I’ve done that doesn’t work. I have to remember that it’s ok to put my foot in it as long as I do my best to remember the lesson next time.

    • taperkey

      I completely agree. Each child is different, and you really do need to pay attention so that you give the right kind of support. I find that anytime I hear the word “should” ringing in my head–such as “you should be able to do this”–it’s a GREAT indication that I need to step back and assess what kind of support is really needed from me. Thanks for the story!

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