By Christine Rushford, Coastal Counseling
This past summer I took my almost middle schooler to a beach with a giant slide dropping off into the water. There was a group of rambunctious boys shoving each other as they climbed up the slide and all jockeying to go down the slide first. I paid it very little attention as I was deep into a summer read and was relieved there were other kids there to play with my son. That is until I heard a mother on the shoreline yelling her son’s name repeatedly. I looked up thinking she must have lost her young child. Then the mother waded into the water, headed towards the water slide. I soon realized that her son was not lost, he was one of the boys on the water slide. I watched as she stood to the bottom right of the slide and began chastising the other boys to stop shoving her son. The boys responded with mixed confusion and “yes ma’am’s” as her almost-middle school age looking son stood red-faced at the bottom of the slide. She completed the scene by pulling her embarrassed son out of the water, stating loudly for those around her to hear, “C’mon you’re not going to play with those bullies!”
This case illustrates an issue I am finding common in my practice with parents. Somewhere along the way, parents have bought into the message that it is our job as parents to make our kids happy. It is our job to fix problems for our children so that they can have a happy childhood. If we have an unhappy child, we have failed at parenting. This is leading to a bigger issue than unhappiness. We are enabling a whole generation of children that cannot regulate emotions or problem solve on their own, because we have always solved the problem or been unable to watch our children struggle.
Watching our children struggle is a difficult thing to do. We are older and wiser (hopefully) and want our children to suffer less than we did in our lives. The problem with alleviating our children’s problems when they are young, is they never learn how to solve their problems when they are grown. I often remind parents; our job is to teach our children the skills to one day leave us with confidence. When we take away the struggle for our children, we rob them of gaining new, necessary life skills and the feelings of competence that come with solving a problem.
As a toddler, struggling might look like a tantrum over wanting candy before dinner. The tears and the frustration need to be worked through by the child. The parent can assist by role modeling empathy and providing the feeling words, “I know you’re really disappointed about the candy. You can choose a snack after dinner.” By not giving in to the tantrum, the child learns to work through the frustration and disappointment. This is a skill he will utilize the rest of his life.
When a child is disappointed and hurt, it is not the parent’s job to make it go away. The parent can support and guide the child through the feelings, but should not “solve the problem” due to their own inability to watch the child struggle. I hear so many times in my office, “But I can’t stand to see him upset…” and I ask why not? When he is upset, he is learning emotion regulation. It is an opportunity for your child to grow. Those opportunities start in toddlerhood and rise all the way up to adulthood. When the mother in the story above yelled at the other boys and pulled her son from the water, she robbed him of a valuable opportunity to learn important social skills. A better way to handle it would have been to keep an eye on the situation and see what her son did to advocate for himself (unless of course it became a dangerous situation, by all means intervene in that case). She might have been surprised that he was able to stop the pushing by using his own voice. If he couldn’t do that and came out of the water upset on his own accord, that would be the time for mom to intervene by supplying her son with some social tools-practice saying, “stop!” ask another child to play somewhere else in the water, etc. Instead, the mother “took care of it” and the next time her child is in a social situation and mom is not there, he will be all the more ill-prepared.
We as parents need to look at our children’s struggles in a different light. Rather than focusing on the pain in the situations, we need to look at these moments as learning opportunities. These moments are “on the job training” for when these kids leave home and become independent, productive members of society. It’s okay for your child to have a bad day. It’s okay for your child not to make the soccer team. It is okay if nobody comes to their birthday party. Is it difficult to watch those moments? You bet! Does it mean their childhood is an “unhappy” one? Definitely not! You can help your child by supplying tools to handle those situations, not by eliminating those situations altogether for him. That is your job as a parent. It might be painful in the moment, but when they leave the house at age 18 with a confident smile and wave, it will be worth the short-term pain. You will also feel so much better that your child can handle life’s disappointments with confidence and skill.