Guest piece from Erica Reischer, Ph.D.
In our popular image of “helicopter parents” we imagine overeager parents hovering around their kids, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice, behavior I often call “over-functioning.” We vow not to do that and intentionally refrain from stepping in when our kids forget their homework or have a disagreement with their teacher.
But there’s another, more subtle kind of over-functioning that many of us are unaware of doing: fixing feelings.
Like the helicopter urge to “fix” situations (such as forgetting homework or lunch), the urge to “fix” feelings comes from a similar place of good intentions: the desire to spare our children from discomfort, disappointment, and failure (e.g., being cold or hungry, being chastised by the teacher, getting poor grades, and so on).
In the case of fixing feelings, we are trying to spare our children from experiencing unpleasant or painful emotions, ranging from something relatively minor like boredom to something more significant like social rejection. In most cases, we are also trying to spare ourselves from the distress of seeing our children experience unpleasant or painful feelings.
It’s no easy task, but we must learn how to tolerate our children’s discomfort, so that they can, too. I’ll repeat that since it’s such an important principle: Learn to tolerate your child’s discomfort, so she can, too.
Although it is understandable for parents to want to buffer children (and themselves) from these experiences, in so doing, parents inadvertently deprive children of the opportunity to learn and practice good coping skills, with their help and guidance.
Here are two examples illustrating what I mean by “fixing feelings”:
1. Your child comes into the room where you are working, sighs, and declares, “I’m bored.” It’s easy to reflexively respond to this complaint with a long list of potential activities. But this response encourages kids to look to you in the future to solve this “problem” instead of grappling with it themselves.
Instead, consider allowing your child to experience boredom. Why? People are inclined to avoid unpleasant experiences, so if boredom is unpleasant for your kids, they are likely to come up with their own solutions. Now they will have engaged their imaginations and also learned that they can resolve challenges.
If you feel you must help them solve their boredom “problem” (or a similar situation), resist the temptation to tell them exactly what to do in favor of talking them through how to solve their problem. Narrate the process. For example: “Well, what are some things you have enjoyed doing in the past? Let’s make a list.”
2. When you pick your child up from school, she says tearfully, “Everyone hates me.” This is a very painful thing to hear as a parent, so a common and natural response to this is, “No, they don’t, honey! What about Amanda? She’s your friend.” It’s probably true that your child’s perception of the situation is not entirely accurate, but telling her this, even nicely, may leave her feeling unheard and misunderstood.
Trying to fix her feelings may also communicate the idea that those feelings are “bad” (instead of an emotional experience that is normal and will pass) or that your child can’t handle those feelings (so you have to step in). Also, as I noted earlier, trying to fix feelings doesn’t give our children the chance to learn how to tolerate those feelings or to practice emotion regulation skills to manage them.
TRY THIS: When you notice that your child is experiencing a feeling that you have the urge to fix (e.g., boredom, rejection, anxiety), pause and remind yourself that this is an opportunity for your child to practice some useful life skills with your guidance.
Start by acknowledging and empathizing with her feelings: “Oh, honey, I’ll bet you feel really sad and lonely when you think that everyone hates you. That would feel really terrible to me, too.” See where this conversation starter takes you.
When the time feels right, you can step into the role of coach, using open-ended questions to elicit your child’s perspective and encouraging her to try on alternative viewpoints: “So, what happened today that makes you think everyone hates you? . . . Oh, so the other girls seemed to ignore you when you wanted to play with them? (reflection) . . . Are there any other explanations that might also explain what happened?” And so on.
Part of the goal here is to help your child look at the situation from other perspectives, and hopefully conclude (in most cases) that there are other, equally valid ways of interpreting what happened. If the situation calls for a response of some kind, support your child by discussing her options with her and walking her through (but not dictating to her) the process for making a choice about how to respond.
With the rare exception of situations in which adults should step in immediately, such as bullying or abuse, remember that you don’t have to fix the situation or make your child feel better. Just offer your compassion and presence. Help your child learn to feel her feelings and to choose her actions. This is a critical life skill for success. Even though we may feeling a strong emotion, such as anger or despair, we can make the choice to pause and decide how we want to respond (instead of react) to the situation. We don’t have to say what we are thinking, or act on our feelings.
Excerpted from WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive by Erica Reischer, Ph.D. © 2016 by Erica Reischer. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
About the Author:
Erica Reischer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and parent educator based in Oakland, CA. She holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago in psychology and human development, and is an honors graduate of Princeton University. A former consultant with McKinsey & Company, Dr. Reischer sits on the advisory board for HappyHealthKids.com and leads popular parenting classes and workshops at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Habitot Children’s Museum, and the University of California. Her writing about children and families appears in Psychology Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Learn more at http://www.drericar.com/ or https://www.amazon.com/What-Great-Parents-Do-Strategies/dp/0399176691.