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How Parents Can Help Their Children Through Life's Difficulties

Protecting children too much can sometimes backfire.

Key points

  • It can be hard for parents to let their children know about the difficulties of life.
  • Children are interested in learning how to reckon with life's difficulties in order to build emotional resilience.
  • Parents can help their children build emotional resilience by talking to them in a way that reflects the truth.

Protecting our children from difficult feelings and hardships in life is an impossible task. As much as we know this deep down, many parents still go out of their way to protect their children from knowing how difficult and scary life can be. While this is natural—likely even a biological drive to assist in the survival of their young, and as a mechanism for parents to soothe themselves—it is impossible for parents to live up to, and ultimately not in the best interest of our children. This is true because the single most important task of every child is to learn how to become comfortable inside their body and mind while experiencing daily life and having all of their feelings.

It is clear that building tolerance for upset and distress helps children to be better able to feel safe and enjoy themselves in childhood, even when things are hard and scary. This resilience to hardship can then be carried into adulthood as they strive for meaningful, successful, and enjoyable lives, even when things are hard and scary. In order to build this kind of emotional resilience, children need to feel secure in their relationship with their parents that they will be helped through all of their difficult moments.

When parents protect their children too much from experiencing difficult feelings and life events, it can affect their children in several ways. It can deprive their children of the opportunity to learn how to process these feelings when difficult situations arise. It can also cause distance in the parent-child relationship. When children inevitably feel difficult feelings, they might believe that they are disappointing their parents. They might also feel worry that their parents are failing them by not keeping them safe when something causes them emotional distress.

Some may argue, “Yes, but children shouldn’t know about war! It might be okay to teach children about germs, but not disease and death!” While it is true that children shouldn’t have to contend with so much—no one should—it is also not reality, and the most important thing we can do for our children is to help them tolerate reality. We do this by telling children the truth.

One of my patients, Mary, spent the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic doing everything possible to distract and protect her six-year-old daughter from any kind of Covid anxiety, without success. Her daughter became too anxious to go anywhere unfamiliar, despite Mary’s many attempts to hide her own anxieties about contracting the virus. While she and I spent many hours discussing her own fears, she couldn’t make sense of her daughter’s new phobia. “Why,” she would ask, “is she so afraid to go out? I keep telling her we will only go to safe places. I tell her there is nothing to worry about. I have never talked to her about my fears. I just don’t get it!” When I asked Mary about her daughter’s feelings, she said, “She doesn’t say anything, she just says she doesn’t want to go and looks at me, petrified. I tell her she has nothing to be afraid of. Everything is okay.”

Children are highly attuned to the feelings and experiences of their parents and the general goings-on around them, and are ready, or even eager, to reckon with difficult feelings. One quick glance at a list of the most beloved childrens’ narratives can confirm this: the Grimms’ themes of child abuse, abandonment, and death; Maurice Sendak’s many books about righteous anger and disdain between children and their parents; and nearly every Disney movie’s depiction of war, and the inevitable death of a parent. An atmosphere of tension and anxiety that is being muted by parents’ and caregivers’ assurances that “everything is fine” not only strips children of their ability and willingness to reckon with life’s challenges but also leaves them feeling alone, unsettled, dysregulated, and perhaps doubting their experience of reality.

The question becomes: How do we help our children make sense of the world right now? The answer: We accept how they are feeling, and we help them talk about it in ways that reflect the truth.

You are likely already seeing how your children are communicating the various effects of our personal, social, political, and global anxieties. They could be showing more anger than usual; or they’re less interested in trying new things; or maybe they have heightened awareness of dangers around them; or are fretting about war.

Whatever behaviors or communications your child may be showing you, accept them all as reasonable responses to distressing situations. Help them talk about how they are feeling. As natural as it may feel to say, “Don’t be scared, it’s okay,” or “Let’s talk about something nice instead,” this might soothe you, the parent, but it can put a lot of pressure on your child to doubt and deny their reality. Additionally, your child could feel that they are wrong for having these feelings. While the undesirable behavior or topic of conversation might be reduced or eliminated in the short term, your child will likely still feel scared or angry but might not feel comfortable showing it for fear of disappointing you or in an attempt at being a “better” child for you.

As difficult (and scary!) as it may feel, try to take this pressure off of your child, and yourself. Give your child the space to feel scared, or angry, or sad. Let yourself feel these feelings too. Experiment with agreeing: “You’re right! This is scary! I am angry and sad, too.” Because it’s true: You are scared, and sad, and angry, and things are scary, and sad, and infuriating. Your child needs to learn that you can help them have their feelings, without fear of their feelings hurting either of you. Children learn this by trusting that their parents can accept both their own and their children’s feelings.

When I first asked my patient Mary if her six-year-old daughter might be afraid of her, she nearly fired me. This is understandable. Nobody goes to therapy to be accused of hurting their child. While that is never my intention, it can benefit parents to be prepared for what their children need to say to them, and to know themselves better. This is important because the more comfortable a parent can feel having their own feelings, the better equipped they will be to help their child through life’s difficulties without trying to change their child’s feelings.

When Mary was finally able to ask her daughter, “What am I doing to scare you?” her daughter’s response shook her and left her in tears: “I’m scared you’ll get mad if I show you I’m scared.” Mary was flabbergasted. She had exerted so much time and energy hiding her own anxieties about Covid from her daughter and hadn’t realized that her daughter felt inhibited by her mother’s need to hide the truth. In retrospect, Mary could see that—despite never having shown anger towards her daughter for being scared—she did try to always change her daughter’s feelings. Instead of acknowledging and respecting her daughter’s—and her own—fears, she was sending her daughter the message that she couldn’t handle her daughter’s—or her own—feelings. Mary has since eased up on “protecting” her daughter’s emotional state—and her own—and her daughter has begun to show more interest in going to new places. Mary’s daughter feels more comfortable now, with the rediscovered confidence that her mother will accept her anxieties, no matter how hard and scary life feels.

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