Protecting Kids From Pain Is Not The Answer

Protecting Kids From Pain Is Not The Answer
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Somewhere along the line, many of us well-meaning parents got the idea that we could, and should, shield our children from adversity and pain.

This is a terrible idea.

As soon as you stop and consider the feasibility of protecting your children from a lifetime of agony and grief, you will see the absurdity of it. Our offspring will have their own disappointments, scraped knees, and broken hearts.

We forget that these ups and downs are a normal part of life. We think we can (and should) stop them from happening because we feel responsible for our kids. But we can’t (and shouldn’t), and it’s so much worse when we think it’s our fault.

I remember the first time I accidentally bumped my sweet boy’s head on a door jam. I was horrified. My poor little 3-month-old was screaming! It was a tiny bump, and he was fine, but I felt awful. I surely shushed and bounced and patted and nursed him until he was sufficiently “soothed.”

Later, when my toddler was upset about something he wanted and couldn’t have, I would again divert his attention and distract him, not realizing I was putting layers of duct tape on problem after problem.

I was unintentionally clogging my child’s emotional pipeline; keeping him from the hard but necessary work of having his feelings. My wise friend and colleague, Pam Leo, has a saying that I find myself repeating often:

“Crying is the healing, not the hurting.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was potentially affecting my son’s stress response system. Perhaps even hindering his ability to learn self-regulation in the healthiest way ― by staying regulated myself and modeling a “top-down” mode of calming my emotions and behavior.

Supporting my boy through a painful wasp sting.
Photo by Katey Bourget
Supporting my boy through a painful wasp sting.

New research shows the complicated but close relationship of physical and emotional pain, which both create a stress response in the body. Because our biology is smart, we have many ways to cope with stress, and one of them is emotional expression. The sticky thing is that while children are generally excellent at accessing this fabulous mechanism for integration and healing; they do so with their immature, still-developing brains.

I probably don’t have to tell you that never looks pretty. Young people definitely need our guidance in learning how to manage and moderate (but not repress or ignore!) what I like to call “strong feelings.” If we panic, want it to stop, or get upset and angry, we’re not much help.

Life is inherently painful. There is no getting around this.

If you love and connect with people—which of course you want to do—that means you will eventually experience profound loss. If you retreat from others to protect yourself, you will feel the pain and isolation of loneliness. Loss is inevitable. This Huffington Post writer put it bluntly: “One hundred percent of the people who walk this earth will deal with death.”

Close parent-child relationships help kids become resilient.
Photo by Katey Bourget
Close parent-child relationships help kids become resilient.

A number of years ago I wrote about an incident when my son wanted a green bowl. Only to then change his mind and demand a blue one; then white, and then red. After every bowl was out of the cupboard, I realized that no bowl was the right bowl. As this dawned on me, I was able to stop my frenzied feelings and sit on the floor with my bereft toddler. Awash in calm, I held him close as he cried and wailed and grieved.

“I’m so sorry none of these bowls feel right to you,” I told him, full of compassion.

It didn’t matter that it was a big fuss over a measly bowl (and surely his upset wasn’t about bowls). I finally stopped arguing with reality and decided to just be with my grieving boy. Unsurprisingly, he moved on from the stringent bowl demand once finished with his upset.

Many supported “bowl-like” meltdowns later, he’s better at calming himself and navigating the inevitable tight places and tough phases in life. Aren’t those skills the ones we really want our children to have?

Sarah MacLaughlin is an author and parenting coach who supports moms and dads who want to raise respectful, cooperative kids without losing their minds. You can read her blog here and find her on Facebook and Instagram.

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