Handling The Painful Parts of Parenting

By Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, Parenting Educator and Coach

Somewhere along the line, many of us well-meaning parents got the idea that we could, and should, protect our children from adversity and pain as a part of parenting. This is a terrible idea—a huge thinking error. As soon as you stop and consider the feasibility of protecting your children from a lifetime of agony and grief, you will see the absurdity of it. There will be disappointment, along with scraped knees, broken hearts, and even labor pains.

But we forget that these ups and downs are just part of life. We think we can stop it all from happening. We want to because we feel responsible for our kids. And it’s all so much worse when we think it’s our fault. I remember the first time I accidentally bumped my sweet baby boy’s head on a door jamb. I was horrified. My poor little three month-old screaming and screaming—it was a tiny bump, and he was fine, of course—but I felt awful. I’m sure I shushed and bounced and patted and nursed him until he was sufficiently “soothed.”

Later, when my toddler was upset about something he wanted but couldn’t have; I would again divert his attention and distract him, not realizing that I was putting layers of duct tape on problem after problem. I was unintentionally clogging my child’s emotional pipeline, keeping him from the hard but necessary work of having his feelings. My wise friend and colleague, Pam Leo, has a saying that I find myself repeating often to myself and others: “Crying is the healing, not the hurting.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was hindering my son’s ability to effectively integrate the emotional centers of his brain in any healthy sort of way.

Both physical and emotional pain create a stress response in the body. Because our biology is smart, we have a way to cope with this stress: emotional expression. The sticky thing is that while children are generally excellent at accessing this fabulous mechanism for integration and healing, they do so with their still-developing brains. And, well, I probably don’t have to tell you: it’s just not pretty. They definitely need our guidance in learning how to manage and moderate (but not repress or ignore!) what I like to call, “strong feelings.” If we panic, want it to stop, get upset and angry, or fall apart ourselves, we’re not much help.

Life is inherently painful. There is no getting around this. If you love and connect with people—which of course you want to do—that means you will eventually experience profound loss. If you retreat from others to protect yourself from loss, you will feel the pain of isolation and loneliness. It also seems that the anticipation is usually worse than the actuality of the discomfort. Imagine how anxious you get before a big performance or presentation—or how worried you are about the bee, even though it did not sting you. This anticipatory anxiety is learned conditioning, a trick of the mind, and you can aim to not pass it on to your children.

A while back I wrote about an incident when my son wanted a green bowl, only to change his mind and demand a blue one; then white, and then red. Only after every bowl was out of the cupboard did I realize that no bowl was the right bowl. As this dawned on me, was able to stop my frenzied feelings and sit on the floor with my bereft toddler. Awash in calm, I held him close and he cried and wailed and grieved.

“I’m so sorry none of these bowls feel right to you,” I told him, full of compassion. It didn’t matter that it was a big fuss over a measly bowl (and I’m sure his upset wasn’t really about bowls). I finally stopped arguing with reality and decided to just be with my grieving boy. Many bowl-like upsets later, he’s better at navigating the inevitable tight places and tough phases in life. When more significant losses come, I know he’ll be ready.

[author image=”http://kidzedge.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Sarah-MacLaughlin.jpg” ]Sarah MacLaughlin is a social worker and author of the award-winning, Amazon bestseller, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, and the blog Balancing Act. She considers it her life’s work to promote happy, well adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today.[/author]


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