We had a child therapist friend over for dinner the other night who shared an observation with us that really stuck with me.
She watched Emma, our 3 1/2-year-old daughter, as she circled her chair at the dining room table and tried a few times to climb up. She made it eventually and then struggled to get her feet out from under her so she could sit comfortably. Deb and I were distracted, talking to our friend. We didn't even notice it.
So often, she said, when a parent sees their child struggling like that, they instinctively will just go and pick them up and plop them down on the chair without thinking. It wasn't our intention at that moment to let her struggle and figure out how to get onto the chair herself, so no gold star for us. It was an accident, but it is such an important lesson.
Witnessing our kids struggling to do things can be so triggering for us as parents. It can trigger memories of similar struggles in our pasts. It can make us anxious, impatient, or angry. It can trigger the rescue instinct to just fix it for them to alleviate their pain (and ours too).
As parents, we have to try and distinguish, often in real time, between what our kids want and what they need, or what is best for them. That's not easy, especially when whatever they are engaged in is triggering for us.
When our friend shared her observation, she described the beauty in her struggle, of mastering something on her own and how empowering it must feel for a child her age to gain more independence.
We tend to associate struggling with overcoming and not necessarily with the decision to engage in the struggle and the corresponding benefits, irrespective of whether or not we overcome the obstacle.
Next time you're in a situation where you see your child struggling to achieve something, try to take a step back and pause before acting. Pay attention to what your triggers are and think about why that situation is triggering you. This process will benefit your children immensely without ever having to say a single word.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.