Our children don’t usually tell us when they are experiencing emotional pain or distress. It often comes through in their behaviors. Your toddler may act whiny and excessively clingy. Your teenager may engage in unpleasant and offensive dialogue with you. We, as parents, need to read between the lines and look for the feelings beneath their behaviors and words.
Parents often ask, “Why don’t my children just tell me what’s bothering them?” Even at an early age, kids are unconsciously afraid to let their parents down. The look of pain, distress, and disappointment on their parents’ faces is difficult for them to tolerate. Some of these children have learned that when they talk about their stress and emotional pain, their parents have difficulty accepting their feelings. Some may even try to argue with them about what they are experiencing.
Helping our children manage their distress begins with what our children hear from us; what we model. When children hear their parents say, “I can do this”, or “This is tough, but I’m going to figure it out,” they learn to talk to themselves positively. Parents have the power to teach their kids how to talk to themselves kindly.
Teaching children how to be gentle with themselves is essential in helping them manage distress and overcome challenging experiences.
Demonstrate to your children that you’re present and prepared to process their distress with them. Refrain from asking your child why he or she is upset, as that may lead the child to believe that he or she has done something wrong. “Why” is not a question parents often ask when the child has done something “good,” right? Very often, kids don’t know why they feel pained or distressed. The “why” may not be important at all.
Work through your children’s distress with them. If they’re worried about something, talk through the “worst case scenario” and discuss how to solve the problem if the worst does occur. Reassure them that they are not alone and you’ll be there for them. Saying something like, “We’re a team—we can tackle this together” goes a long way in helping kids feel supported.
Distress and emotional pain are normal parts of child development. If your child’s struggles cause you excessive strain and feelings of helplessness, reach out for support, including therapy or parenting education sessions.
Leah Davidowitz LCSW