Opportunities for Upset – Why Struggle is Good for Our Children

As parents, we want to protect our children from the hard stuff. We seek to shield our sons and daughters from the painful parts of life. We want their lives to overflow with good things. We want to see them happy. We want their lives easier than ours. We don’t want to see them suffer. We want to give our children more than we had.

But, are these desires good for them? Is a childhood where they are always happy, have everything they want and free from pain and struggle what they need? The painful answer is…No.

Children need to struggle. Children must do things they do not feel like doing. Children need to hear, “No.” Structure and boundaries are needed whether we (or they) like it.

Will this tension create upset for them? Yep; in all likelihood, it will. Opportunities for upset are beneficial for children because these moments provide practice for children to learn to recover from their upset. As parents, if our end-game is to raise happy children who avoid struggle, we are robbing them of crucial life preparation for the real world. What if instead, our goal is to raise well-adjusted adults who love God and can recover when things go wrong? This includes learning to survive, not getting what they want when they want it. This perspective flies in the face of an entitled culture that screams; you should be able to “have it your way.”

Dr. Jim Wilder tells the story about a time he was a young boy, and he saw a butterfly struggling to break free from its cocoon. He felt bad for the butterfly and how hard it was struggling to break free, so in his compassion, he decided to help the butterfly. He made the opening in the cocoon bigger so the butterfly could easily escape. Once the butterfly was out, it flopped around but was never able to fly.

In his desire to help the butterfly and rescue it from the struggle of escaping its cocoon, Jim had short-circuited the process by which the butterfly strengthens its wings through struggle. The butterfly never reached its full potential.

I do not enjoy seeing my children sad, upset, and frustrated, but I have learned (and usually remember) not to rescue them from their feelings. This has taken some practice.

When my son was nearly a year-and-a-half-old, he had a small toy train he loved. He could not only ride on the train, but it also had a handle on the back so he could push it around the house. His favorite thing to do was push the train all around the house, and it would sing the alphabet to him. I can remember many times I would sit on the floor with him as he would push the train in circles all around me. Inevitably, the train would get stuck on the area rug. He would quickly become frustrated and be vocal about his stuck train. It would have been easy for me to fix the problem for him, but I knew he was eventually going to need to learn how to fix this situation himself. More importantly, he needed to learn how to manage his big feelings.

At the moment, I would synchronize with him, and move closer, saying, “This is so frustrating! Is the train stuck? We get so mad when it is stuck!” You can watch some of the video footage here.

I joined my son in his big feelings. I synchronized with his upset, and I monitored the situation to be sure it didn’t become too much for him. I comforted him if he became too upset, but I did not fix what he was upset over. He was at the stage in his development where he could begin learning how to return to joy from his big feelings, and I did not want to rob him of this crucial practice.

Starting at about a year, infants begin learning how to recover from upsetting emotions. As our babies grow into the child stage (1) of maturity (about four years old), it becomes important for them to learn how to do things they don’t feel like doing. The child stage of maturity (roughly 4-12 years old) is when our children need to be good at doing hard things they don’t feel like doing and managing their emotions when they can’t have what they want. These are important skills for life!

Without these years of practice, our children will enter the young adult stage of development (starting around 13 years old) without the essential tools needed to navigate the new pressures and responsibilities they encounter. Thankfully, even if our children missed these skills in the infant and child stages of development, they can still learn them; it will just be harder and sometimes messier for us as parents. (2)

This week, look for opportunities to allow your children to struggle. If they do not have much practice with this, you will need to closely monitor, synchronize with their frustration, and stay attuned, so they do not feel alone in managing these feelings. You may even need to join them in the task to help them accomplish the hard thing together. Over time, as they practice with your synchronization and attunement (and perhaps even some help), they will learn to manage more and more on their own. Remember, feeling helpless may not be fun, but it won’t kill you as you allow your children the opportunity to master discomfort.

This is a foreign concept to many parents, especially parents who want the best for their children. Can you help me get the word out? Please use the buttons below to share with your friends and family.

Next week we will explore why this can be such a difficult concept for us to live out in our parenting.


(1)  For more on the stages of maturity, check out Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You.

(2)  If you find you have young adults who don’t know how to recover when things go wrong, start telling them stories of times you felt the way they are feeling, and include how to you come back to a place of relational peace. This is a large part of Track Two of THRIVE Training.

 

 

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