As the school year winds down, end of the year activities are in full swing. College-bound seniors have made commitments to schools, and those venturing out into the world of work or travel are getting ready to embark on their next adventure. As they move forward, how prepared are our children for disappointment, challenge and failure? Are they equipped to make decisions and live with possible regret? Can they recognize and accept their limitations? Have they cultivated a solid work ethic? Do they have realistic notions of what it means to be in a relationship?
When your child has a problem with a friend, are you tempted to call the other child’s parent and rescue him from the other’s mistreatment? When he or she gets a disappointing grade, are you inclined to call the teacher? If your college bound son is not accepted to First Choice University, do you consider contacting the admissions department to request another review?
For most parents it is very difficult to watch our children struggle. Our temptation is to “kiss the boo boo and make it better.” What if we didn’t? Rather than try to protect them from uncomfortable feelings, what if we left our children to the task of feeling them, validating their feelings and telling them that we trust that they will be able to manage?
Imagine the outcome of protecting your child from all negative experience. Without hours of repetition and frustration she would not learn to ride a bike, play a sport or a musical instrument. Without having to wait, he would not learn to delay gratification or take turns. Without having been cut from a team or not being selected to play in a game or perform in a play, your son might not develop realistic self-expectations or aspirations. Without a disappointing grade, your daughter might not evaluate her own work effort and make appropriate adjustments. Without learning to accept her role in and manage conflict, your daughter will not learn how to be a friend.
Too many of our kids are hurting themselves–with alcohol and other drugs, cutting, disordered eating, and other high risk behaviors. These are complicated, multiply determined behaviors, yet they share at least one common thread: the inability to mange overwhelming, intense negative feelings, such as sadness, disappointment, anger, insecurity, ambivalence, anxiety, even boredom.
A healthy adult has learned to tolerate and manage frustration and distress. All major psychological and spiritual traditions recognize the inevitability and universality of human suffering. It is not possible to get through life without some challenge. While it may seem like some people lead charmed lives, free of financial or health problems or challenges in relationships, for instance, every single one of us will face loss and feel pain.
To develop the tools to cope, kids need practice with challenge. They need to learn to sit with discomfort and to learn from it. They need to accept imperfection in themselves, others and life in general. As you strive to help your children develop strong character, fortitude and resilience, set an example of your own capacity to tolerate distress. Show them that you and they can survive and thrive. They are listening and watching.
Marlene Maron, PhD, is chief psychologist in the Department of Psychological Services at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She is also clinical associate professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.