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Why Trying Harder Isn’t Helping Your Struggling Teen

Many years ago I saw a therapist point to his desk and ask a student to “try to pick up that pencil.”  
Of course, the student picked up the pencil without any struggle at all, holding up the pencil triumphantly, only to be faced with “No, that’s actually ‘pick up the pencil’ – I asked you to try to pick it up.”  
Repeat scenario.  
The third time the student simply didn’t try at all, to which the answer was “Not trying wasn’t the request, that’s don’t pick up the pencil.  I asked you to try to pick up the pencil.”  
The fourth attempt was a pantomimed version of picking up a very heavy pencil, complete with feigned grunts and strains, but in the end the pencil was still picked up.  Another setback.  Frustration began to set in, and the student slumped back in his chair and folded his arms in dejected resignation.
We all sat quietly as the student thought through the riddle.  Finally, the lightbulb moment occurred and the student leaned forward in his chair and said “So what you mean is that when I say I’m going to try to be nicer to my parents (insert: do my homework, be respectful to my teachers, share my feelings, control my emotions, etc) that I actually am either doing it or I’m not doing it.  Trying doesn’t really exist.  What I need to do is actually change what I’m doing.”  
“OK, I get it, but how am I supposed to do that?  It’s not like picking up a pencil.  I really am trying hard.”
“I’m sure you are trying hard, but what we need to do is focus on helping you, and your family, try something different.  What you’ve been doing clearly isn’t working, and trying harder at what’s not working is just going to get more and more frustrating for everyone.”
“OK, so how do I try different instead of try harder?”
“That’s a much longer conversation – but we’ll figure it out together.”
When trying harder isn’t working, be it for educational, emotional, clinical, environmental, or family reasons, a therapeutic placement can be the place where a struggling teen, and their family, learns how to try different.  Each program has their own unique approach to helping children and families build new skills and increase a child’s willingness, and capacity, for change.  Finding the right program, with the right supports and structures tailored for your child’s unique needs, challenges, strengths, and interests is a key component in learning how to try different instead of just trying harder.  


About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.