When your children bring you their pain

How do you react when your child feels hurt or wronged? Lawrence J. Cohen offers some strategies for parents.

When your child comes home from school and tells you a sad tale of being mistreated by a friend, classmate or teacher, do you leap to protect your innocent, misunderstood child? Do you say, ‘Oh, my poor little dear, how terrible that someone did this’?

Do you launch into action to fix everything, gather evidence as if you are preparing a lawsuit, or lash out in anger at whoever made your child feel bad?

Or perhaps you approach the issue from a different angle, saying, ‘You must have done something to deserve it’. Or do you dismiss your child’s complaint as an example of his or her tendency to be overly dramatic?

These are all understandable responses, but none of them captures what children need from us in the moment. When children let us know that they are in pain or have been wronged, our job is to acknowledge that pain, bear it and help them bear it, and keep perspective on it.

Acknowledging our child’s pain means reflecting back what we have heard, without judgment. ‘Sounds like that hurt your feelings’ or ‘I can hear how sad and angry you are about that’ is a better response than ‘That girl (or teacher) is so mean’ or ‘You always exaggerate.’ Acknowledgment is not agreement. If your child reports something very unlikely, you can still reflect his or her feelings: ‘I hear you saying that the teacher made the whole class stand on their heads all day.’ You don’t have to call your child a liar – or call the school in a blaze of anger at such bizarre behaviour.

Bearing a child’s pain means not being swept away by it. Most people have empathy; most parents have lots of it. That’s good – up to a point. If we share our children’s pain too much, we may rob them of the chance to feel their own feelings. A friend of mine was so upset that her son wasn’t invited to a birthday party, she couldn’t sleep for a week. That’s excessive empathy. Lost in her own flood of memories and emotions, my friend couldn’t bear her son’s pain, which meant she couldn’t help him bear it. Or actually, in this case, she couldn’t see that he was not as upset as she was.

Learning How to Handle Hurt

When we bear children’s pain without dismissing it, they learn that something can hurt, but that they can handle it. If we rescue children from feeling pain by fighting their battles for them, they will not learn to stand up for themselves. Parents who can’t bear their child’s pain may give a cookie instead of empowering encouragement, or treat the child like a helpless victim who needs to be rescued.

Bearing the pain also means noticing those times that your child tells you about a terrible event – getting you all worked up about it – and then runs off to play. You listened, which was just what your child needed. Now it’s your turn to let it go.

Keeping a sense of perspective, the third step, follows from acknowledging and then bearing the pain. Perspective is for you to consider silently, rather than say out loud. For example, my friend might have thought, ‘There will be many other parties. This pain is intense now, but it will pass. This is about him, not me.’ But if she said any of this out loud to her son, he might hear it as dismissal of his feelings.

Social skills, fairness, power dynamics, assertiveness — these things take years and years to master. Another aspect of perspective is that there is time for things to slow down and unfold organically. Asking, ‘What do you think you might like to try next?’ is much better than telling your child what to do next. Even if you have a great plan, it is yours, not your child’s.

When we lose perspective and really feel the urge to rush things, we don’t just tell children what they should do, but we actually do it for them. Instead, it’s better to gently encourage children to get more information: ‘Let’s ask your teacher about that.’ Many upsets are the result of misunderstandings or missed communications. Remember also that you probably didn’t get the whole story, so it’s best to seek a middle ground between ‘That’s horrible!’ and ‘What really happened?’

Any child can be teased by peers, or treated unfairly by a teacher. It hurts, but it need not leave lasting scars if the pain is treated as worthy of compassion, but bearable. Acknowledge, bear, and keep in perspective. As you offer these gifts to your children, keep in mind that we suffer when our children suffer, so be sure to aim some of that empathy and compassion toward yourself.

This article first appeared in the summer edition of Independent School, published by the National Association of Independent Schools, United States of America.

Psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen is the author of several books for parents, including Playful Parenting and The Opposite of Worry. He is visiting Australia later this month for a series of workshops on Playful Parenting. You can find out more here.