Last week, I sat in my office talking to one of my young adult clients. As she began our session, she stated that she needed to problem-solve how she could talk to her professor.
“I need to tell her that her system is unfair. If I have to submit my assignments by a specific time, then she should get the assignments back to us in the same kind of timeframe,” she complained. She went on to say that she didn’t do an assignment that was due that day, because of the unfair arrangement.
As I sat there listening to her, I was struck by the notion that she had no idea how to handle the nuances of life that seemed unfair to her, and that she didn’t know how to manage the disappointment she feels when she’s told “no”.
In thinking about it further, I realized that many of my adolescent and young adult clients have no idea how to manage disappointment. They are products of families that provide a great deal to them, often “over-helping” and running interference when something uncomfortable presents itself. Although many parents believe that they are doing the right thing by pushing obstacles out of the way and helping their children avoid adversity, it actually prevents children from learning how to handle life effectively.
As a parent, you may not think twice about putting your child’s project together or running a packed lunch to school when your child forgets it. Unfortunately, going the extra mile in this regard actually puts your child at a disadvantage and doesn’t adequately prepare them for dealing with life on life’s terms. If they know someone will just make it happen, they never truly learn how to handle disappointment or solve problems for themselves.
In essence, it’s time to take off the bubble wrap and encourage children to succeed, and fail, on their own terms.
Parents want to go the extra mile and create the opportunities for their children that they believe will be best for them. But are you pushing your child to do what you want, or are you tapping into what he or she wants? According to parenting expert Michele Borba, author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” many college students lack the inner strength they need to have self-confidence and a healthy mental state. Borba notes that students with helicopter parents are less open to new ideas, more dependent and more likely to report being depressed or anxious and needing medication. Additionally, she points out that intrusive parenting limits children’s opportunities to develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant.
When kids are not allowed to fall, and pick themselves up, they never learn how to tolerate disappointment. They don’t learn how to manage their relationships, stand up for themselves, fight their own battles or take responsibility for their actions. They don’t learn how to regulate their emotions.
THE PITFALLS OF “OVERPARENTING”
Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford University, and author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” highlights many ways that over-involvement in parenting creates mental health issues for children. She concludes that there is harm being done when we ask so little of our children with regard to life skills, but expect so much of them in other areas, such as academics and sports. We push kids to be “the best” but don’t provide them with the tools to handle coming up short. We fight our kids’ battles for them, instead of teaching them to fight for themselves, and we don’t teach them how to manage suffering and struggle, doing everything possible to keep them from experiencing such hardship.
Thinking again about my client, who felt it unfair that the rules were different for her than for her teacher, I noted that sometimes life is that way. Even if she was skillful in verbalizing her concerns, there was no guarantee that the situation would change. So we spent much of the session discussing how she would manage not getting what she wants and how she would sit in the disappointment of that. Her initial response was that she just wouldn’t do her work, seemingly forgetting that the only person who suffers there is her. Her inability to manage effectively spoke volumes about her lack of life skills and knowledge about how to succeed without intervention.
So, what can parents do to help promote independence and teach children how to tolerate distress and manage disappointment? How can parents manage their own emotions and encourage development without imposing their beliefs or fighting all their kids’ battles for them? It’s hard to implement change, but that may be just what’s needed to prepare your child for the “real” world. Here are a few things you can do:
Step back. Our first impulse is often to step forward, to move toward the problem and to protect our children. There are certain ages that this is, of course, absolutely necessary. As your child gets older, however, you need to do less of this and instead be a supportive sounding board. Encourage critical thinking. Help your child to develop a plan that comes from your child and not from you.
Provide guidance. Often, we push our own agendas rather than hearing what children think. As the adults, we think we know more, based on our experiences. The problem here is that we are directing our child’s life rather than teaching them how to make good choices for themselves. When you act like a director, you are leading and your child is following. When you provide guidance, you are offering suggestions, and allowing your child to choose what works best for them. When things don’t work out, it offers more opportunities to problem-solve.
Create space. If you make space for your child, you allow her to learn how to manage things that get thrown her way. You also allow your child to experience and manage his emotions. Children and young adults need parents. They want parents to be involved, help and provide support. They also need you to give them space to grow. The more supportive they feel you are, the more capable they will be of coming to you when they fail or just need advice.
Many of our efforts to protect children and young adults, to build their self-esteem and promote confidence, may be backfiring. This isn’t to say you should throw your hands up and step back, doing nothing. Instead, while you guide and lead, you must give your child room to make mistakes – and get back up again on their own.