As counter-intuitive as it may sound, children need to experience challenges and some pain to grow resilience. The sense of mastery that results within a child who can overcome challenges is one of his biggest sources of resilience.
As parents we may sometimes interrupt opportunities our children have to develop mastery over adversity because we lose the distinction between danger (where it is our job to secure safety) and pain (where there is an opportunity for learning). I’m not suggesting that we add pain to our children’s lives, but that painful things happen and we serve our children best not by fixing every problem but by being present with them in those moments.
Running in front of a moving car is dangerous. Standing too close to the fire in your nightgown is dangerous. Not getting invited to a birthday party, having your teacher get upset with you, when your sister bites you — these things are hurtful, but not dangerous.
Children rarely choose to experience pain, but it is important for them to know that when pain occurs in their life that they won’t dissolve, disappear or be less loved. They need to know that even though they don’t like it, they can handle pain, and after awhile it stops hurting so much.
Young children experience many things as painful. They hurt when they are disappointed because they don’t get what they want. They hurt when they are tired and hungry and don’t even know what they want. As parents it is not our job to fix their hurt or to “make them happy,” but instead to connect with them, give them some brief language to talk about their feelings and to have deep faith that they (and we) will move through it.
Why is this so hard? One reason is that we have the mistaken idea that a good parent is a parent who can keep her child happy and protect him from pain. (A parent who focuses on their child’s happiness will grow a very entitled, confused child.) Another reason is those darn mirror neurons — when our son or daughter is in pain, we feel pain too! In order to feel better ourselves, we may rush in to rescue our child.
When your child is in pain:
- Notice your own reaction. Notice your response to their pain/hurt/disappointment and take a deep breath. (This takes practice.)
- Be willing to be present. You don’t need to talk your child out of her discomfort, tell her it will be better or explain with lots of words.
- Name and normalize. “I know you are disappointed that you can’t have a cookie right now. You wanted one!”
- Allow expression with appropriate limits. “It is okay to be mad and to tell me how you feel. It is not okay to call me names or to throw things.” “I can tell you are disappointed — it is okay to cry.”
- Offer a connection. (But hold off until she settles down enough to hear you.) “Would you like a hug or time to read with me?”
- Problem-solve, if appropriate. Wait until your child is back in her “better self” to start that conversation. Time is on your side.
One little addendum is important here. Our culture has historically used imposed pain as an effective way to “teach.” While it is true that we all learn from painful experiences, teaching children what to do instead of what not to do is much more effective long-term. Consequences and punishment are among our least effective parenting tools and do not build resilience. They create a rupture in the relationship between you and your child, and while they may work in the short-term, the long-term results are less than helpful. Life is hard enough. You, the most powerful person in your child’s life, don’t need to intentionally add to that pain.
About the author
Jody McVittie, MD is the executive director and cofounder of Sound Discipline, a local nonprofit dedicated to teaching people to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. Sound Discipline works with schools and families in the Puget Sound Community.