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Handling the ups and downs of life: How resilient is your child?

How well does your child deal with adversity, cope in difficult situations, become stronger after disappointments? In other words, how resilient is she? We often think that our job is to protect our children from life’s tough lessons, the pains of day-to-day living, but in fact, our protection only helps us feel better about ourselves — except when we inevitably fail — and does not serve our children.

Often, we don’t want to hear their anger, experience their sadness, or deal with their disappointment because we don’t know how to deal with it. In many cases, we were not allowed those feelings growing up, so we don’t know how to allow our children to have them without “fixing” them or denying them or making them go away. Their feelings often frighten us because we think it is our parental responsibility to either protect them from the feelings in the first place or take them away once they appear. When we manage to protect them, we diminish their resilience, their ability to cope with life’s inevitable frustrations and situations beyond their control.

Here’s the good news: It’s not our job to either protect them or take away those tough emotions. We can take that one off our plate. We all experience the full range of emotions. They make us whole. All we need to do is allow our children to express them. It’s only the unexpressed feelings that cause behavior we don’t like.

When we learn as children that some of our feelings make our parents uncomfortable, we learn to suppress them. Suppressed feelings do not do well when they meet up with the same feelings in our own children, so we tend to pass on that suppression.

Building resilience in children requires that we:

1. Trust our child’s ability to handle difficult problems and emotions

2. Convey in words and body language confidence in our child’s ability to cope

3. Allow, accept and validate their feelings of sadness, fear, anger, disappointment over situations they cannot change

4. Do not jump in to rescue them or fix situations that cause their frustration in order to avoid our own fears

5. Balance our own wants and needs with theirs, which will inevitably cause their frustration and disappointment

Children are so much more capable of dealing with and solving problems than we give them credit for. Our natural sense of nurturing can easily switch to overprotection when we believe we are responsible for our children’s happiness.

You do not serve your children by protecting them from unhappiness or telling them they shouldn’t feel what they are feeling. Let their tears flow; allow their anger and disappointment. You don’t have to do or change anything. Simply acknowledge and empathize with those feelings. In doing so, you help your children understand that they are normal for having those feelings.

When we say things like, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” “We don’t say things like that about our friends,” “Why are you angry about something like that?” “Stop it. Stop yelling. Sit still and be quiet,” we send our children messages that they are not okay, they’re not doing it right. They don’t go to school and check out with their friends if they too have similar feelings. We are the ones who teach them that their feelings are either always, always okay or that they are wrong for having them — hence the suppression.

Many situations are too much for children to handle: a school environment that puts on too much pressure, a truth that is too much to handle, a situation that the child is too young to understand, etc. Many of these events are out of our control. We can’t bring back a loss or undo a divorce or make a hurtful peer move to another town. What we can do is hear our child’s pain without trying to take it away. Your child has a right to it and will get through it with your support and understanding. Your attempt to make the pain go away only tells your child that she is not capable of handling it without you.

How well our children are able to get over difficult situations and disappointments and move on determines how resilient they are. A schoolmate who taunts with a hurtful name, a desired toy you think inappropriate or unaffordable, a limit that feels unfair all cause natural feelings. Allowing those feelings does not mean you have to change the situation or give in so your child will be happy. Your child’s ability and opportunity to feel all his feelings and know that he is normal for having them, sustains his resilience to move past the situations.

“Of course you’re disappointed that I said no. I’m sure I would be too if I were you,” is an expression of empathy that normalizes the feeling and allows the child to feel heard and understood. It requires nothing more.

“This is such a hard time. It must seem like it will never end,” is what your child wants to hear from you. “Oh come on, life is going to throw you a lot worse than that. Better get used to it,” or “Oh, don’t be so upset. I’ll take care of it. Let’s go get ice cream” communicates that your child isn’t getting it right or can’t handle it. We don’t want a lecture or even advice when we’re in a tough place. What we want is someone to understand. When we have that, we have all we need to move ahead.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email bh@bonnieharris.com.

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