Child who doesn't "rise to the challenge", but retreats from it

Hi all -

The title of the thread pretty much says it all. My 12-year old son backs away from any type of social pressure or physical challenge at all. He is so afraid of failing (say, at sports or games) that he’d rather not try than fail! Same with relationships; he’d rather be alone than risk rejection from peers, etc. (Though, interestingly, he’ll engage kids a few years younger than he is, like my younger son’s friends.)

Wondering if any of you have tips to help him embrace a different attitude and to rise above a lack of confidence. Honestly, I’m concerned that he’ll never take enough of a risk to experience success, making this a lifelong rut.

Some things I’ve considered:

Asking him what experience he’d like to have that he’s been too afraid to pursue, and then helping him take small steps toward achieving that goal.

Locating books on building self-confidence for teens.

Trying individual sports rather than team sports, so that team members won’t be reliant upon his successes or lack thereof (tennis, track, swimming, ice skating, etc. This has been good in many respects, but he needs a little ego-stroking from peers, too, I think.)


Your son is almost EXACTLY like my 9-year old daughter (except that she prefers the company of children MUCH younger… like babies and toddlers). You have my deepest sympathies!

We’ve been trying to help her through tough social situations for years, and nothing we’ve tried has worked for more than a very short time.

We’ve been taking her to a wonderful and patient therapist, and this past Monday, he suggested the following (and I readily admit that this may not be as easy to do with 12 year old boys as it is with 9 year old girls): he suggested that we organize some directed playdates, where we invite a girl her age to our house to play, but insist on everyone staying in the same room. When our daughter has trouble figuring out what to say to keep the conversation going, we’ve been told to fill in the gaps and get the ball rolling again.

I’m interested in seeing what others have to say about this topic!

I would encourage him to have a pet he can train.

Can you get a puppy or a dog and enroll him in 4-H classes. These are fairly cheap classes that allow a young person to bond with their animal.

What about a painting or pottery class at a local community college? A community boating program for kayaking or sailing? How about the good old boy scouts?

I am a Middle School Youth Minister. Your son is no different that many kids (mostly guys) his age. There is little wrong with his behavior. It may change and it may not. I have one boy in my Confirmation class that is very quiet and non-engaging. If you push him too hard to ‘embrace a different attitude’ may push him further into his safe world. Be proud of who he is instead of dwelling on how you believe he should be.

Good luck and peace!

This is generally good advice, and we followed for a while with our own daughter. But now, she’s desperate to become friends with the girls in her homeschooling group and girls’ clubs, but doesn’t know how to do it. She’s afraid of saying anythint that’ll lead the other girls to make fun of her, so she ends up trailing behind them without saying anything, and eventually gets ignored and/or excluded entirely. If this didn’t affect her so profoundly, I’d let it go.

Sounds like my brother, 15. 8th grade, and the most he’s done is theater, this week is its last week, and he absolutly resists makeup

Have you made it clear to your child that it’s okay to fail? That you will love them no matter what? My 2 oldest kids are mostly outgoing and love to try different things. My youngest is the least active. We’re not sure if it’s because she’s afraid to try or because she’s lazy or lacks motivation. I suspect that she’s a bit intimidated by her older siblings. They both excel at school and are confident. I think it’s pretty safe to say my son has an overblown self image. I keep wondering if she’s afraid that she won’t excell as they do and chooses to not try. I can’t lose if I don’t play sort of attitude. I have repeatedly tried to tell her that it’s okay to not be the best. My wife has taken a weird psoition on this. With my two older kids, we basically pushed them to try when they were quite young. We were careful to avoid over emphasising “winning” as the ultimate end. We were in accordance. With my youngest, she has taken the route of oh well let her be. I’m not cool with that. Funny thing about my youngest. She is doing great in school, but it doesn’t seem to be her own self-image. I worry she thinks she doesn’t meet up to my expectations. I’m currently really focused on giving her a lot of positive feedback and being hyper aware of anything she does well no matter how small.

BTW, I think team sports is agreat place to work ont his attitude. but at your daughters age it might be too late to let that have an uinfluence. How about martial arts? Teaches poise, inner confidence and it’s not bad for girls to be able to defend themselves in this mean world.

is this something new, or has it been part of his personality from an early age?

try to be perceptive and open to things he might want to try but is hesitant to bring up. For him individual sports rather than team might very well be better.

Yup - frequently. But she’s not afraid of US getting upset with her over failure, but with her PEERS rejecting her. She had some truly awful experiences as a 1st grader in our neighborhood public school (so bad that we pulled her out and began homeschooling before the year was over), and I think she’s afraid of those things happening again with her new friends.

Yes - that’s exactly what our therapist has been telling us, and what I’ve noticed myself for the past several months (at least since last September). And considering that I can be quite a perfectionist, it’s not hard to understand that she has a bit of that in herself as well.

Sounds like we’re on the same page here… I notice that her social anxieties increase when I have less time to spend with her (for example, when I’m working overtime, or have lots of stuff to do around the house). Last night, when I returned home from my apologetics class, she was waiting for me - and that’s about as late as she’s ever stayed awake without the excuse of being sick. She obviously needed my attention, and she got it.

We’re involved in soccer (and I’m the coach), but she’s a lot smaller than the other girls and much, much slower due to her short legs. But - and this is a BIG achievement for her - she talked to her teammates voluntarily before last night’s practice and wasn’t afraid - for the first time - that they’d make fun of her for being homeschooled (all the others are public schooled).

I have a seven year old like this- he is the type who is typically shy. I don’t push him to do new things, but I do encourage him in non-confrontational sort of ways.

He is the type who wants to study the situation, figure out exactly what he needs to do, even practice it alone first, before he has the confidence to do it where someone might see him fail. We can’t spring things on him, guaranteed that will lead to a blow-up.

The best thing we have done so far is give him lots of little things that he is guaranteed to succeed in- planting things, keeping pets, school work… we start gentle and start small. He builds confidence as he succeeds. Also, I prefer not to push him if he is resisting. He will typically eventually take part in the activity, but he wants to observe first. Forcing him to do it the first time without giving him that time to observe just leads to a blow up, too.

Your son is older, I bet you can try talking to him about ways you can help.

Good luck!

He’s 12!!! That’s a very uncertain age in a boy’s life. Love him exactly as he is, confident or not, shy or not, rising to a challenge or not. Anyway what you perceive as a challenge is different from what he does. Please do not try to push him into sports if he does not want to do it! Encourage him to do what he wants to do. Don’t talk to him about fears. Love him to pieces exactly as he is. Whatever you do, do not push him away from you as he enters his teenage years. Stay his advocate, his biggest fan. Do not think of him as a project that you are working on improving!

Over the next few years he will be faced with all kinds of peer pressure and he will need you in his corner in order to stay strong and anchored. Be on his side fully, not thinking he needs to be a little more this or a little less that!

He’s going to develop into the young man God wants him to be, with your guidance. God made him to be the way he is, just relax and help him realize his potential with all his features in place. Perfectionistic? Careful? Reserved? Labels! I have 2 sons, and they have surprised me all the way along. The younger one has been a challenge and I made lots of mistakes and have lost time when we could have been close, because I was trying to change him into what I think is right for him.

Let go of your expectations of what a son should be. Discover and love the son you have.

I was the type of kid who wouldn’t try things either and to be honest, the more you push, the more the kid will get mad at you and not try.

Sometimes, parents trying too hard is what makes kids go into their shell. Especially at 12 when the teenage rebellion is starting.

One thing I would suggest is when he DOES go out of his comfort zone do NOT say ‘Good for you’. Act like nothing happened. If you praise him when on his OWN free will he tried something the only thing the kid will hear is ‘Yes I am naggin you again because I want you to get out of your shell’. Just act like it is normal and he gets the idea trying will not cause a broadway production from his parents, he will be encourage to try again. Mainly because if no one noticed his trying, then no one can notice his failing.

Also, there has to be some acceptance on the parents part that the kid does not have the personality they were hoping for.

People can make a turn around at anytime. Don’t push too much


I agree with cmscms,dconklin, and The Real Juliane!

I was like this as well as all of my siblings and my oldest son. We are all shy and slow to warm up.

As soon as I stopped worrying about my son and let him be who he was he started to try new things on his own. It is not about what you can do it is who you are that matters.

My advice is to get him to a child psychiatrist. This is not because he is sick, but because he might have developmental problems in connection with how he has been raised and feelings of security faced with challenges and other children.
I am not a professional but just read alot about child development and a few signs of being halted in an earlier development stage is eg

  • bad self esteem
  • isolating one self
  • not daring to take on challenges at school
  • preferring the company of younger children

I think its a very good investment to have him see a therapist, or he might miss out on life in many ways, and the longer time that goes, the harder it will be to work with the underlying problem that causes the things you experience.

This is not to critizise you as a parent although it will involve your cooperation both to acknowlege the problem and help in the process of getting him help and listening to the professional helper…
these things are serious but not rare.

minnieg, I don’t suggest you give him books on self confidence. We mustn’t dictate to a child what he’s supposed to be like but we should instead tteach him to do things and get out of his shell. Saint John Bosco once had a dream where and it has thought me alot about love and my relationship with our Mother Mary who is the Mother of all Mothers and the model of all love:

First of course, he needs love from his parents. I’m not saying that you don’t love him at all:)! but if you spend more time with him, if you do activities that don’t involve spending money, then your boy will build confidence in you. His heart will expand and he’ll expect other things in life.

Secondly, he must be humble. He musn’t care for what people think about him or else, if he only acts so that people may see what a great and clever person he is. If he fails, he fails, but at least he wants to fix his failings. Also, if some of his friends insult him and call him names, he shouldn’t mind or care in the least for what they call him (even though he should listen to them if they tell him that he has some faults which they are finding annoying).

Thats all I can say as of now, as I found that when being devoted to the Blessed Virgin, it helped that I know just how much She loves me and that if I do have faults, She doesn’t abandon me but always stays with me.:slight_smile: make sure that he does become a dvout Catholic though. May your children also be the Blessed Mother’s children!

Kids with ADD or ADHD are known to prefer to hang with kids at least a grade lower. They are “delayed,” in social skills and sometimes don’t get along with their peers. They are not in need of psychiatric help. One of my older son’s peers, about 3 years older than my younger son, would be drawn to my younger son, who has ADHD. I suspect she also had ADD. She went younger chronologically but I think they were similar ages mentally/emotionally.

I still maintain that this young man, whether or not he is in developmentally slightly behind, is merely not living up to his parents’ expectations of where he should be. Maybe his siblings are all riskers. Maybe they are all Type A’s who go out and shape the world into what they want it to be. Maybe they love sports. Maybe he doesn’t.

He’s almost a teen. Do not send him to a shrink for his personality. He will feel sick and broken for something he cannot help. If he is normal, just not how you prefer him to be, don’t look at him as less-than.

It is a bad thing to feel that you are not good enough for your own parents.

Sorry, I did not mean to imply that the OP’s son has ADD/ADHD. Just that it is one category where kids can get along better with younger kids, and they are normal in every way. I missed my window of editing the previous post.

It’s an interesting observation nonetheless… our daughter DOES have ADHD (in addition to Asperger syndrome which expresses itself in the form of social - and occasionally general - anxiety), and does MUCH better with MUCH younger children than she does with her peers. The problem is that she WANTS to be a part of the group that contains girls her age at church and girls’ clubs, but doesn’t know how, and feels like a reject as a result.

I haven’t read through all the replies, but have you considered putting him in a form of martial arts? I will readily admit that I don’t know a whole lot about it, but it seems from what I’ve researched that it does a great job of instilling self-confidence, discipline, a great form of exercise. Plus it would be a smaller group setting with kids his own age to have a common activity while not having to compete against them.

Just a suggestion.

It’s a very good idea, but this young man is already 12, and he may have some ideas about how he wants to spend his time. He should be given many more choices and options starting about now. You can’t just sign a 12-year-old up for something without some buy-in.

I still say acceptance and embracing of his nature would be the best.

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