How We Unintentionally Teach Our Kids Not to Try - and What to Do Instead
Updated: May 8
The list of “what my son needs to do to be a happy, independent adult” seemed to grow every day. I was worried – the world is a competitive, tough place for a neurotypical kid, and how much more so for a neurodivergent one. I wanted desperately to support him, to see him thrive and be happy.
He came home from school, and we wrestled through hours of fractions. He’d grow increasingly irritable, angry, and eventually would shut down or explode. I’d press him on cleaning his room, and when I’d peek my head in to find the room still a disaster, and him online – another fight. Every single task turned into a battle of wills, and pretty soon we were both tense around each other all the time.
One day, as I pressed him yet again on something that I was sure was critical to him being okay in the world, he froze and then burst into angry tears. “I can never make you happy, so why even try?”
I stopped, dead in my tracks. He was completely right. The work, the tasks, the to-do lists items never stopped coming. As soon as we fought, argued, struggled and cried together through one task, a new one replaced it. I was teaching him three things: doing what you’re supposed to do is miserable, completing one task only leads to another being added to your list, and no matter what, there will never be a time when mom is happy with you. I was demotivating him from trying.
It’s no surprise that I was treating him this way. This was how I treated myself. My days were full of tasks I hated, tasks I pressed myself through, while my inner critic berated me for never doing enough. My life had no space for celebration, joy, or pleasure. I couldn’t blame my son for not wanting to live his life that way.
That day I started to change how I treated myself, and how I treated my son. Slowly, to-do lists became shorter, concrete, and reasonable. And when they were completed, we stopped working. We celebrated. We enjoyed each other’s company. Others came into his life who pushed him to grow – mentors from the local LGBTQ Center, the bus drivers he admired who encouraged him in his dream to work for the local metro bus system. It took years, but we found a new balance. The battle of wills and constant fighting seem a long, long time ago.
More than a decade later, I work regularly with parents and young adults who are engaged in a battle of wills. This is normal development for all young adults – to become independent adults, they are developmentally programmed to push back against their parents and create their own identity. Parents are worried about the young adult, and the young person is angry, frustrated, resentful, and tired of never making their parent happy. Every task is approached, not as a concrete task (“please empty the dishwasher”), but as an instantiation of the parent’s worries (“how will he ever get a job if he can’t even unload the dishwasher?”) and the young person’s frustration (“all she ever does is tell me what to do and get mad at me”).
A Transition to Adulthood Specialist’s role is to let you, as the parent, step back, take a deep breath, and refocus your energy on enjoying your life and your relationship with your young adult. It is developmentally appropriate for your young person to be building their own identify, and that includes pushing back on their parents’ efforts to influence them. An outsider faces much less resistance for that reason.
A Transition to Adulthood Specialist works with your young person on envisioning a successful, independent life and helping them create and implement a plan to get there. Using tools from a variety of methodologies, I help your young person learn strategies to manage anxiety, increase motivation, break larger goals into concrete and achievable steps, and tackle common executive function challenges. As your young person starts putting their energy into growing their own life, and moving forward in a way that excites and energizes them, the battles decrease and both you and your young person’s joy increase.