Parenting: An Exercise in Sitting with Discomfort
From the moment we become pregnant, we quickly can become uncomfortable, from morning sickness, swollen feet, random pains and squeezing ourselves into clothes that don’t quite fit; then mixed in with excitement is the emotional distress that can come with trying to plan for the baby; getting everything you need, setting up a nursery, securing childcare or determining if someone will become a stay-at-home parent. There are a lot of difficult discussions to be had and challenging decisions to be made. Our bodies and these logistical changes prepare us to tolerate more and more as we become parents.
When a baby is born, we have to manage the distress that comes with lack of sleep and ever adjusting schedules. We instinctively turn to look when a baby cries and jump to do something as they are helpless to do things for themselves. This is how babies survive and thrive.
As kids get older, we see them struggling daily with friendships, assignments, losses in sports, and dealing with life’s general frustrations. We have to determine how to help them handle these situations and work through them. It’s difficult to know the right thing to do and just like when they were babies, we want to jump to be there for them. It’s important to become mindful of how we help them cope as the solutions we model often become their coping tools as they grow up.
I have seen many parents of teens throughout the years who come in and complain that their child is failing a class. Well intended parents often leap into action and go and talk to the teacher and try to figure out how to keep their child from failing. Sometimes they will write a paper or do an assignment for their teenager. They are desperate to save them from the upset and consequences that come from failure. What do our children learn from this? Is it possible that we prevent them from learning how to problem solve or how to come back from failure? Do we inadvertently teach them that their parents will always be there to fix the problem? As parents, we will do ANYTHING to relieve a child’s pain and make sure they are comfortable, but as they get older and more capable, we have to ask ourselves, is it helping them for their future if we take away all obstacles and discomforts?
One of my favorite quotes is from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain Highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” Many of the 18-25 year old's that I see are shocked to learn how difficult life can be and how challenging it is to be an adult. My 4 year old looked at me the other day and said “mommy, I can’t wait to be a grown up so I can make my own rules.” As kids we often falsely believed that we could do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted and make all the rules. When we turn 18, we quickly realize that this isn’t the truth. We learn that to get the things that we want that we need to be persistent, work hard, be consistent and be able to “roll with the punches.”
As I write this article, I sit here with a baby carrier on and covered in spit up from my two-month old (true story). I recently had my third child and I have had to quickly learn that someone in my house will almost always be uncomfortable or have a need that is not being met. I will be feeding the baby and my two year old is screaming for a snack while my four year old is crying because I gave her the wrong purple crayon. It’s hard for me to see my children experience even these tiny discomforts. I know at times it causes me physical pain to see my kids get hurt either physically or emotionally. I remind myself daily that I am only one person and I have to do the best I can with the time and energy I have each moment. If I bend over backward to make sure that everyone in my house has their needs met, then my own needs might not get met and I am resentful and irritable. It’s all a delicate balance and I am still learning and adapting each day.
Being an adult, we learn that we grow and improve through certain discomforts. Ultimately, the parents in my practice all want the best for their children. They want them to be happy, successful and not have to struggle in life. This is completely understandable. Perhaps, instead of removing all struggles, we can figure out ways to help our children feel confident that when a challenge arises, they will be able to cope, withstand the discomfort and get through it. Here are some ideas of how we can do this:
Do with rather than do for: The old adage of “teach a man to fish” rings true here. We want to help our kids learn the skills to do things for themselves and be independent. This helps to prepare them for the world and takes some things off of your plate. Think about the capability level of your child and scaffold steps to help them learn to problem solve independently.
Let your kids be uncomfortable: If we are constantly catering to our children’s needs, they will never learn to work through times when they are upset or learn resilience. Start with allowing them to have small struggles like putting on their shoes and socks independently and move toward things like them self-advocating with a teacher or a friend or boss.
Let yourself be uncomfortable: Think about your go-to’s when you are feeling upset, hurt, frustrated or had a bad day. Do you turn to food? Retail therapy? Go straight to bed? Try to recognize your patterns and instead, pause to experience what you are feeling inside and truly take time to acknowledge it. Validate your own feelings and give yourself some space (if you can) to work through the emotions to lessen their impact on you. Feelings don’t like to be ignored and they will come back in full force later if we keep pushing them down.
Breathe into it (and teach your children to do the same): When we are doing challenging physical exercise, we work to breathe through the pain and do one additional set, rep or lap. We push ourselves to get stronger or in better shape. This can also be true for our distress tolerance and resilience. The more we learn to breathe through the pain, the more pain we can withstand each time. Demonstrate for your children that you yourself can get through challenging situations to meet your own goals.
Parenting is hard. Try to go easy on yourself and be kind to yourself. If we can learn to let our kids struggle (safely) and figure out how to get through challenges, they will learn the skills to be more prepared for the world and learn that they can overcome obstacles to work for a life they can enjoy.