How to unstick a stuck child

What do you do when a child or young person says “I can’t do it” and they can’t move themselves forward?

Getting a child past the idea of being stuck and getting them out of that habit of saying “I can’t do it” is really important. When a child’s brain is developing, their brain makes a lot of pathways called neural networks. As our children grow, something called neural pruning occurs. Neural pruning is when the brain is trimming back some of those neural networks that are not in use anymore.

If you’ve heard of the phrase “use it or lose it”, that’s what’s happening on a neural level. If you have a child, for example, who learned a second language when they were two or three years old, and they do not continue to use that language, they won’t have it anymore as they grow up. They will literally forget it. That’s because the neural networks have been trimmed and pruned away. If there are certain things that you would really like the children in your life to get good at or to become highly skilled at, we need to help them get past the idea of them being stuck.

They need to get back in the motion of doing it as soon as possible, so that they don’t convince themselves that they can’t do it, and then lose the ability to do it because they spend so long not doing it!

One of the things that I like to do with children when they come to see me for a session, is to get ahead of the problem. I anticipate that at some stage they will say they can’t do it (whatever it is), but it’s probably something that’s really important that I’ve asked them to do. In order to get ahead of the problem. I do something called ‘the red test’. I get them to look around the room and think to themselves or say to themselves ‘red’, as in the colour red, whilst looking around.

I tell them to look for all the red things, notice how many red things they can see and then close their eyes. Then I say, “tell me about the red things that you saw.” They’ll list it to me because their eyes will have been drawn to the red stuff as they looked around the room. Then I say, “keep your eyes closed and tell me about the blue things that you saw.”

You’ll often find there might be one or two blue things that they knew were in the room, but the list is going to be significantly shorter because they were looking for red things. Then I say to them “if the red stuff was all the things that you didn’t want or all of the things that you thought you could not do, you just saw evidence of it everywhere! It was all over the place. If the blue things were the helpful things, all of the things that we wanted, all of the things that would make you feel like you could do it, you didn’t see any of it because you were too busy thinking about red things.”

This is a practical example of how we can accidentally make our brain think that stuff is more difficult than it needs to be, or that we’ve got more evidence of not being able to do something than we have evidence of being able to do something. It all comes down to what are you looking for.

If what you’re looking for is to prove that you can’t do it, guess what, you’ll prove that you can’t do it. If what you’re looking for is to prove that you can, then your brain will start to see more of that. Sometimes we need to have conversations with young people about the fact that they are in charge of their brain and that they can take proactive responsibility for making their brain think in a different way. Sometimes it’s not just going to happen naturally. You have to change the way you think.

For example, let’s say that you have a child who has a piece of work in front of them and they say, “I can’t do it.”

Start with “Have you got a pen? Can you pick up the pen? Can you remove the lid from the pen?” You can make a joke out of it and make it fun. This isn’t about making them feel silly it’s just about taking it step by step. What often happens when someone says “I can’t do it”, is that they’re actually saying, “I am overwhelmed and I cannot take all of this in.”

We’ve all got different thresholds on what overwhelm looks like. For one person, overwhelmed might be a 10,000-word dissertation. But for someone else overwhelmed might be two plus two equals, and it’s the only thing on the page in front of them. Breaking things down into smaller, more achievable sections makes it easier to take the first step. “Right now there is just one thing to do. Take your lid off your pen and we’ve already made a start.”

When I worked with very young children, who had been out of education, nursery and those sorts of things for some time, perhaps due to illness, we’d often find that when they returned, their development had been set back a little bit. Not only were they not in alignment with everybody else in the group, but they were often perhaps six months regressed developmentally from how they had been before they left. So we would give them a jigsaw puzzle that was suitable for a much younger child, because giving them something that was easier, would allow them to tap into a sense of achievement.

Because it was super-easy for them, we would start to see the self-confidence creep back in. When self-confidence is there, they’re more comfortable with facing something that’s a bit more challenging. Think about how you can bring things down an academic level for them to make it so that they can’t claim stuckness, because it’s so ludicrously easy for them to do.

The final thing is something a bit more fun, which is what we refer to as ‘unsticker questions’ in NLP.

These are really good for tripping your brain out and getting you to think in a different way. These are sometimes used in a therapeutic environment because we also face this problem as therapists, of people saying ‘I can’t do it’, or ‘I’m stuck.’

Stuckness shows up a lot in therapy. Some sessions you can hear “I don’t know” a lot! Sometimes we would reply with, “what would happen if you did know?”

That can be an unsticker question, but the best unsticker questions are a bit wackier than that. An unsticker question could be something like, “What would a pigeon say if it had this problem?”

It’s like a jump start for the brain.

It’s the same as when you’re angry, and someone makes you laugh, and it’s just so ridiculous. It snaps you out of that anger mindset that you’re in, so it kind of works in a similar way to that.

“If you could put this problem on a cloud, would it float?”

Unsticker questions loosen things up a little bit and make your brain more free. And that’s the point, the opposite of being stuck is becoming free again. So even though it’s not necessarily going to get you the result that you want, yet, it’s going to get things moving, and it’s going to take away that brick wall or stuckness.

“If a worm had this problem, would it turn it into words?”

“If a wizard had this problem, what kind of spell would he make?”

Original article written by Gemma Bailey, and modified by Taryn Formby

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