Why is it when we have more wealth, gadgets and connection than previous generations, we are less happy than ever before? There are many factors, some are biological and others are traumatic early life experiences. But also it has to do with children not being given opportunities to learn enough resilience and coping skills. In our endeavour to look after our children, we parents deny them so many opportunities to learn from mistakes. Making decisions, taking the consequences of those decisions and building skills to deal with negative emotions and situations – are learnt skills. Incidental learning and intentional learning of these skills occurs with our parental guidance.
We can help our children understand that sadness is temporary but this must be experienced to learn and build the skills to move on from it. Knowing that your anger will subside is something that you learn. Realising that your euphoric joy also dissipates, helps us to embrace it more next time, while it’s there. We generally learn to manage our feelings through experiencing them. Yet many well-meaning parents protect their children from experiencing negative feelings – from failures and mistakes to scratches and bruising.
Here’s 2 ways to be most helpful for your children’s lifelong wellbeing:
- Let them feel the consequences of their decisions and actions. Don’t leap in to salvage the situation for them. This can begin at a young age with minor decisions and build up as they grow older and have developed better skills. For example, what do you do when they insist on wearing the fairy dress to the shops, even after you’ve pointed out that it’s only 12 degrees outside and they will feel cold? Let them wear it, and learn from their decision. When they complain at that shops that they are cold, you don’t take off your jumper and give it to them, or stop shopping so you can get them home, you can gently and lovingly remind them they made that choice and you’re sorry they are cold and encourage them to think about what they might do differently next time. Or what if you had an adolescent child who didn’t get their homework done because they were on social media and also watching the TV? Instead of writing a letter for the teacher saying they didn’t have time to do their homework, you let them fail that assignment. In both of these examples the child will learn about making better decisions next time and also learn how to sit with the negative feeling (anger at you, frustration at themselves, feeling temporarily miserable etc) and will discover that this feeling doesn’t last forever. Very rich learning for life experiences and building resilience.
- Let your child take some age-appropriate risks. Don’t wrap them up in cotton wool to protect them from all bumps or bruises. So much is learnt while climbing a tree, jumping a creek or building a fort. Let them explore, take some risks and learn their physical limits. Imagine this - you let your child ride their bike to the park by themselves to play with their friend. On this journey they will need to use time management skills to know how long they’ve been gone and when to come back. They may come across a dead possum on the side of the road and poke at it with a stick. They may take in some new learning about a mammals innards! If they forgot to pack a drink, they may get thirsty and understand what that feels like and how it gets worse with time. They may climb a tree while they are out and have to engage coordination, strength and judgment. They might even fall out of the tree because the branch they sat on was not strong enough to support them. Another great lesson learnt! If they get some bumps and bruises it may have taught them something about pushing too far and helping them gain a better understanding of their limits. Let alone learning how to deal with pain. These types of experiences build resilience in understanding how to live by your decisions and deal with problems yourself.
So within the context of ‘reasonable risk’, it is doing them a big favour letting them experience failure and negative emotions. And then gently helping them to take the lesson from the situation if appropriate.
So if you set a limit of one ride at the Royal Show, and they chose one that turns out to be boring and cry because they want another one instead – the most helpful answer you can give them is, “no”. Or put in a more helpful way for them, it would look like this, “I’m sorry that ride didn’t turn out to be what you had hoped, it can feel disappointing when you chose the wrong thing but we agreed one ride, so that’s it for today.” This way you’ve helped them to understand the associated emotion (disappointment) and they will need to build skills to deal with this disappointment. While this is a fairly small disappointment in the context of potential life time disappointments, what you’ve just done is to help them build a skill that will serve them if they do get a seriously big disappointment as an adult later in life (ie, just lost their job). Without learning these little skills along the way, when they are grown up and you’re no longer there to make it right for them, life can feel quite difficult to negotiate and maybe why we have this increase in mental health issues for our adolescents.
I’m not going to pretend that this stuff is easy. As a parent, all we want for our children is to be happy. But if you can take the longer-term perspective and see how the most loving thing you can actually do for your child is to help them to best cope with life, then you might find it easier to let them experience these things.
Best of luck as you negotiate the wonderful world of being a parent – it came without any instruction manuals so we can only do the best we can do. You won’t always get it right - darn sure that I don’t - but as long as you’re doing your best and give them broad experiences including the bad stuff, your kids will usually turn out with great resilience for life.