Parenting Perspectives: Hard Lessons
Author: Bryan Simmon MA, LCPC, NCC – Director of Adolescent After School IOP
Parenting is hard. Nothing can really prepare you for it. There’s no manual or magic formula, and certainly no experts. It takes a whole lot of patience, and even more love. Becoming a parent unlocks a whole new depth of love. It’s a profound experience really. As parents, we take on this enormous responsibility of caring for and raising this child to thrive in the world that we live. We do whatever it takes to provide the best and protect from all the bad. We give them the healthiest, the highest rated, the safest, the most award winning. From cribs and car seats and organic and ergonomic, to coaches and travel teams and teachers and schools, we want what’s best for our kids. These are good things and we work hard for those things. Our hope is that we can provide as many great opportunities to bring happiness and success.
Interestingly, so often in our efforts to protect, we draw from our own past negative experiences and do our best to help our children avoid them. Makes sense, doesn’t it? “Live and learn.” “I want my children to have the opportunities I never had.” Yet what we forget is that some of these moments were significant contributors to the development of the necessary skills that allowed us to succeed. Think back to some of the challenging times in your childhood and adolescence. Sharing a bedroom with a sibling, death of a relative, not getting asked to the prom, failing a test, not getting accepted to a certain college, a falling out with a friend, getting cut from the team, or maybe not getting the gift you asked for on your birthday. How did you get through it? What did you gain from those experiences? Is part of who you are now a reflection of how you overcame one of those experiences?
I bet we could pinpoint some pivotal moments that were difficult at the time but laid a foundation for success. Yet so often we only remember the painful, negative memories. As parents, we want our children to learn these same lessons but without the challenges, the pain, or the difficulties. Can it really work that way? Imagine an oak tree that was raised inside a greenhouse and then transplanted to the middle of the Rocky Mountain National Forest. How can this tree be expected to survive when it’s never had to adapt to harsh winds, extreme cold, droughts, or torrential rain? Nor has it ever encountered swarms of insects, intrusive birds, and roots from neighboring trees all fighting for the same soil. The tree struggles to survive because it never learned how to adapt to these conditions as it was growing. I think you get the point.
In our children, the lack of developing the necessary skills can manifest in various ways. For some it may be increased anxiety or depression, others it may be lower self-esteem, dependence on others, or avoidant behaviors. Specifically, when reaching adolescence and young adulthood, these symptoms become more apparent. People who have not learned to cope appropriately can struggle with the new responsibilities, independence, and managing the day-to-day. When kids have little to no experience overcoming adversity they tend to lack the confidence of “I can do this”. By preventing anything negative or challenging, over time, we are actually sending the message, “you can’t do this on your own”. A far cry from any parent’s intention.
Ok, so now what? Glad you asked. Let’s find new ways to equip our children with the necessary skills to survive, just like we did. This is hard parenting…this is love.
We can start by shifting from trying to avoid the difficult, the painful, and the negative, and begin teaching our kids how to tolerate the difficult, cope with the painful, and manage the negative. Our hope is that by teaching resilience today, they can build upon those same skills in the future (i.e., college, work, relationships) and be successful people.
Let’s look at some common examples where our love and protection can become counter-intuitive (and forgive me if I step on a few toes):
Embrace the struggle: Let’s not be too quick to opt out of situations. This means not reinforcing avoidance and instead encouraging kids to work through situations. Not going to a party because someone I dislike is there, not going to school because I broke up with my girlfriend, giving up after one try because it’s too hard, switching classes because my teacher hates me, quitting the team because I don’t play the position I like. Learning how to tolerate and overcome are the building blocks of resiliency.
Consequences are natural: This is an important and real lesson in life. If I do not pay my bills, I will lose my electricity, my car, and my home. If I do not show up to a meeting on time, I can lose my job. To a child, we can teach these lessons in school and at home. If I do not clean my room, I will lose my phone. If I do not study for the test, I will most likely not do well. Often times it is easy as a parent to step in and “save the day” by excusing behaviors that typically result in consequences. This can lead to a false sense of invincibility or thinking the rules don’t’ apply to me.
Bad things happen – and I will be okay: We will not always make the team, get the part in the play, get the attention of the person we like, eat our favorite foods, get the best grades, or finish first. People will leave us, betray us, disappoint us, and hurt us. That is an unfortunate and inevitable part of life, and life will go on. Let’s use these opportunities to teach them how to accept and cope with defeat, rejection, embarrassment, disappointment, and failure, and know that when these things do occur they will make it through.
Hearing the word “no”: It’s bound to happen. Limits are love. We won’t always get what we want when we want it. It won’t always be on our time, or the way in which we planned. When the teacher will not extend the deadline, when the boss will not give the day off, when the roommate will not pick up their clothes off the floor. Learning how to cope with not getting our way develops flexibility and adaptability to change.
Clearly, we are just scratching the surface here, and hopefully provoking some thought. I recognize that this falls under “easier said than done”. So, let’s just take one opportunity at a time. I challenge you to look for those loving moments when you can teach your child how to get through the problem, just like you have in your past. “If you give her a fish, she eats for a day. If you teach her to fish she eats for a lifetime”. As parents, let’s help prepare our children to enter adulthood feeling equipped to face the challenges due to come their way. By allowing children to wrestle with challenges, deal with difficulties, and handle the hardships they are gaining the confidence in themselves to succeed in the face of adversity.