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5 Things to Say When Kids Struggle

Rather than reaching for the phone or scheduling a meeting, maybe the best way to help our kids is to let them build some resilience muscle. We can do this by letting them figure things out -- with our support. This is not burying our heads in the sand. This is allowing them an opportunity to grow.
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Six hours of school five days a week, plus homework, practice, games and school concerts... add in time for friends, online socializing, family, and oh yes, sleep!

In the midst of all this busy-ness, some kids face difficult challenges on a daily basis -- challenges that can be as grueling for the parent as they are for the child experiencing them.

What is a parent to do when a kid's friends exclude her? When he's failing a class? When someone on the bus says something mean to him? When she gets cut from the team? When he goes to practice every day and gets little playing time in games? When a teacher is not being "fair"?

When my kids were younger, my first instinct was to make it all better for them. I wanted to fix everything. I needed to call the friend's mom or the bully's mom, talk to the coach, meet with the teacher and sometimes even involve the principal. I have done it all.

A Psychology Today article written by Boston College research professor Peter Gray titled Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem For Colleges raises a strong point as to why it would have been wise for me to look for better ways to help my kids. The article explains the helplessness some kids experience in college when parents have not allowed them opportunity to solve their own problems.

In his article, Gray writes about the increase in the number of "emergency" calls college counselors and administrators receive from students for issues they should be able to solve on their own. For instance:

Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a 'bitch' and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment.

In reference to a discussion invitation he received from a major university, he shares:

Faculty at the meetings noted that students' emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.

Among the suggestions noted by the college is:

Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right. They want to re-do papers to undo their earlier mistakes. We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one's errors.

As a recovering perfectionist, I like this idea. Allowing kids the freedom to fail and struggle could be two of the greatest gifts we ever give them. Letting them know that they and their futures will not only survive, but will actually be enhanced by their struggle, could empower them beyond imagination.

Resilience is a muscle and it needs to be developed. I may not have encouraged much resilience developing during my kids' younger years but I'll chalk that one up to learning from my own experiences.

Rather than reaching for the phone or scheduling a meeting, maybe the best way to help our kids is to let them build some resilience muscle. We can do this by letting them figure things out -- with our support. This is not burying our heads in the sand. This is allowing them an opportunity to grow. This is communicating to them -- regularly -- that we believe in them and we believe in their ability to solve their own problems.

In addition to listening without judgment as they describe their struggle, we can convey our support to kids by letting them know:

  1. You don't have to solve this today.

  • I see that you really want this and your strong desire will help you get it.
  • I totally believe you can handle this better than I can. Let's talk about your ideas.
  • I think it would help if you took a break from this and did something fun.
  • It may not feel good to you right now, but the resilience you're building is making you stronger each day.
  • The urge, as parents, to fix and make things all better will not go away overnight. But we can alleviate our own internal struggle with that urge just by knowing in our hearts that by allowing our kids some struggle, we are contributing to their ability to feel confident in taking care of them selves.