Having trouble with motor skills makes even the most basic tasks hard, from using a pencil to getting dressed. And because the challenges are so visible, they can make kids feel self-conscious or even ashamed.
What you say to your child can make a big difference—both positive and negative. Here are five things not to say to kids who struggle with motor skills, and ideas for what to say instead.
1. “Just try harder.”
At times, kids with motor skills challenges aren’t able to do certain tasks. Just trying harder in the moment won’t change that. Some things just aren’t reasonable or possible to take on until their skills improve.
It’s important to acknowledge your child’s struggles, but to also send a positive message. One way to do that is to use the word yet: “It’s true that you can’t do that yet. But I can see that you’re working hard and getting better at it all the time.”
2. “Not again!”
Kids who struggle with motor skills tend to spill and break things. These types of accidents can be frustrating. And they can make kids can feel anxious and guilty. Try to react with empathy rather than frustration. (That can be hard in the moment, so you may need to wait a few seconds before speaking.)
Start out with, “It’s an accident.” Then say, “After we clean up, let’s come up with ways to try and prevent them.”
3. “Let someone else do it for you.”
The task is hard for your child and you’re strapped for time. But telling your child to let someone else take over can be a confidence killer.
Instead of assuming your child needs help, offer it as an option. “Would you like someone to help you this time, so you don’t feel rushed? We have to leave soon.”
4. “Wow, I wish I could do that as well as you!”
Kids know when they’re not able to do a task as well or as easily as other kids can. And they know when people aren’t being honest about it. Giving false praise can make kids lose trust in the people they need to trust most.
Give your child honest praise that builds self-esteem. Say things like, “This is the best handwriting I’ve seen you do. Are you feeling good about it?”
5. “Your cousin just learned how to ride a bike—why don’t you watch how she does it?”
You only want to help your child do better. But when you say things like this, you’re making comparisons. Your child might hear it as: “Other kids can do this. Why can’t you?”
Instead, encourage your child to keep working on learning to ride. Say, “Everybody learns at their own pace. If you want to practice riding your bike when we get home, we can.”
You can’t make your child’s challenges disappear. But there are things you can do and say that will help your child develop a growth mindset. There are also ways to help your child improve motor skills at home.
About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Vanessa M. Pastore, MA, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration. She has a private clinic in New York City.