Saying "You Can Do It" Is The Wrong Thing to Say. And Here’s Why…
Several years ago, I spent the morning having a conversation with a friend over coffee after dropping the boys at school. It felt indulgent; we sat outside soaking in the warm morning sun, enjoying the crisp autumn breeze, and it felt as if we had all the time in the world. I explained that I was spending a lot of time working on a heart-wrenching post that was difficult to write. I couldn’t get it just right. And then she said something, intending to be kind. But it backfired…
She said, “You’re site is awesome! You can do it!” I knew what she meant – but in the moment, I thought, “Um…Hellur????? Did you hear me? Seriously. I couldn’t get it right.”
She was so well-intentioned and was trying to be encouraging. Her words took me back to a time when my mother said the same words to me.
My mother would say “You can do it!” But do you know what I remember? Anger. I remember the feel of the angry red heat engulfing my face. NO!! I couldn’t do it…that was the whole point! Wasn’t she listening? She just didn’t understand. I didn’t believe her and there was a little bit of trust lost.
When my son was little, his frustrations were supremely audible when he couldn’t do something. (Ok, truth be told, sometimes they still are…I have no idea where he gets it from.)
I wanted to be an encouraging mom, so I said, “You can do it, I know you can!” Then he would scream even louder and start throwing things.
And then I remembered how I felt when my mother said that to me.
Nowadays, if I slip up and tell my son that he can do it, he feels like it’s just another young teen failure. I get an eye roll or a grunt or a “yeah, right.” I’ve learned that telling them they can do it backfires – just like it did when they were little and like it did with me. In the moment, it can really be hard to appreciate young teen angst for the wonder that it is.
Now I know why “You can do it!” might have been the worst thing I could have said. And I know what to say instead.
“You Can Do It” Doesn’t Do It When Young Teens Fail
When we talk with our friends, we don’t usually deny what they tell us or try to convince them otherwise – we just say something like, “Dang. That stinks. I’m sorry. Is there any way I can help?”
That’s what our friends want to hear. They want to feel heard and acknowledged. Why would it be different when a young teen fails at something?
We need our friends and family to acknowledge our disappointment over not being able to do something that was important. What I needed was for my mother to acknowledge that I felt for all the world like a failure. I needed to feel her on my side. I needed to feel her empathy. Telling your kids they can do it backfires for one simple reason. They don’t believe you.
So I tried to connect with my son by acknowledging his feelings that he had failed. Let’s face it – whether he can or can’t IN FACT do it – he believes that he can’t. He wants to be heard and he wants me to understand his feelings! Young teens also feel their frustration really intensely.
Why “You Can Do It” Might Be Harmful
Everyone needs to learn the skill of self-awareness. Every child and young teen needs to learn to trust the messages that they receive from their bodies – no matter how small. So if I encourage my child to eat “just one more bite” after he’s full or when I say “it’s not that bad…I bet it doesn’t even hurt,” I’m showing him that what his body is telling him is wrong.
We are always well-intentioned, but we do this in other ways all the time:
Imagine that you are a child. One day you have the feeling that your mother or grandmother is upset. “What is wrong?” you ask.
Thinking that she is sparing you, she answers “Oh honey, I am fine, there is nothing wrong.”
At this moment you start to doubt your feelings. You sensed something in your body, it delivered the message to you, and you learned to ignore it. (cite)
I want my kids to always trust their instincts!
Accept Your Young Teen’s Failure Without Judgment
That stinks. Yep, it’s that simple. It conveys that you get it and you accept who your children are. They are people who can’t do things sometimes. You’ve heard the failure, you understand, and you believe them. They couldn’t do something that was important to them and they are disappointed. It stinks. You get it.
And here’s the really tough part – what if you could also remove any judgment from the statement to really accept who your children are? It’s not good or bad; it’s just something that they couldn’t do. This time. So the important question to ask them to think about is “What will you do about it?“
I love teaching my kids that they can’t change anything that has happened, but they can choose how they respond. It’s a really hard lesson that I struggle with too!
Yeah, buddy. That stinks that you couldn’t remember your lines in the play. I agree. But what do you want to do about it? Will you quit trying out for the plays that you love? Or will you do something differently next time? How do you want to respond?
After my friend told me that I could do it, I disagreed and told her that I really couldn’t do it the way I had been going about it in the moment. I explained what I had chosen to do about it. It was tough trying to weave together details of my mother’s death, somebody I’d never met on facebook, and an enlightening moment with my boys. Re-working portions of the post so it would flow better was the goal. And I asked her what she thought about the ideas that I was planning to try. It was great chance to get her thoughts and input.
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