All children, even the most fortunate, suffer emotional injuries. At home, in school and on the playground, all children experience disappointment, frustration and failure; criticism and disapproval; and exclusion by peers. All children experience moments when they feel discouraged and alone, even unloved.
Many of these experiences (especially when kids are bullied or have difficulty learning to read) evoke in children a profound feeling of shame. Every emotional injury also evokes some self-protective behavior — some form of protest, retaliation or withdrawal, and some hardening of a child’s protective shell.
In health, children are able to bounce back. Emotional injuries are, in many respects, analogous to physical injuries. Just as our cells must repair physical injuries, emotional injuries also must be healed. Without this healing, the injurious process will spread.
Our task, as parents, is to recognize these common injuries and provide some healing of a child’s discouragement and anger. Often, a simple acknowledgment of her disappointment or frustration is all that is necessary.
Children derive from these experiences — of emotional injury followed by repair — essential aspects of healthy personality development. They learn that disappointments, in themselves and in others, are part of life and that feelings of anger and unfairness do not last forever. They learn that they can make things better, that they will do better the next time, and there are other good things to look forward to.
When we help children recover from feelings of discouragement and when we are able to repair moments of anger and misunderstanding, we have strengthened their inner resources for coping with disappointment and distress. We have built a foundation for optimism and resilience.
We have also set in motion a fulcrum shift in a their emotional development — a shift that leads away from urgent and insistent demands and toward initiative, problem solving and acceptance of personal responsibility. Resilient children are more successful in their peer relationships. They are better able to consider the needs of others, more willing to compromise and less often stuck in attitudes of argument, blaming, and denial. They also have lower levels of physiological stress.
Troubled children, however, do not quickly recover. They remain, longer than they should, demoralized and angry.
What Can We Do?
As parents, how can we promote emotional resilience in our children? How can we help our children bounce back?
To begin, we listen. We offer encouragement and support for our children’s projects and appreciation of their concerns. When they are excited, we share their excitement. When they are anxious, frustrated or disappointed, we offer empathy, solace and understanding.
These are critical moments in the emotional life of a child — when admired adults are able to help a sad, anxious or angry child realize that she will not always feel this way; when we help a child who is disappointed or discouraged regain some measure of confidence in her future.
Patient listening has gone out of style in our current preoccupation with “strategies” and finding quick solutions to a child’s problematic behavior. But, at the end of the day, there is no more important parenting skill than this — and nothing that we do as parents that is more important to our children’s success in life.
We can also let them know that we know how they feel — because we have also had these feelings. We have also suffered frustrations, disappointments and moments of embarrassment. We can say, for example, “Yes, I know, it feels really bad when other kids won’t let you play… I also felt bad and angry when those kinds of things happened to me.” Many children will respond to these statements with astonishment. “That happened to you!?” And, of course, it has.
We can help them put their disappointments in perspective. We can remind them (when they are ready to hear it) of the good things they have done and will be able to do, and that no one succeeds all the time.
When they have become more deeply discouraged, we need to help them develop a different picture of themselves. Their strengths should be in the center of the picture; their difficulties and frustrations should be in the corner.
And we should let them know that, win or lose, we are proud of them for their effort. A child’s feeling that her parents are proud of her may be the deepest and most lasting emotional support we can offer — an anchor that sustains her in moments of anxiety and self-doubt.
When we need to criticize, we should criticize thoughtfully and gently. Kids are kids, and they will make mistakes. So do we.
Of course, it is not always easy to be supportive, especially when children are angry and demanding, or when they insistently blame others. But if we are able to listen patiently, we will often find some truth in her side of the story, perhaps some previously unnoticed provocation or hurt feeling.
Our goal is not to eliminate our children’s frustrations and disappointments, but to help them bounce back. When we are successful, we will observe this healthy development in all aspects of a child’s life — in better peer relationships, in less urgent and inflexible demands and in less frequent avoidance and withdrawal — overall, a more confident, more joyful and more responsible participation in life.
(Originally published in The Huffington Post, May 6, 2013)