A dilemma for parents: Providing support vs encouraging individuation

Parents are often the first to realize if their children are having difficulties with emotions or behavior, and if these issues may be impacting their schoolwork, relationships, and/or self-esteem. Even so, many parents find it hard to balance their desire to have happy children while allowing them to experience some measure of adversity and become more self-reliant. Learning how to address and resolve such dilemmas is an integral part of effective parenting because children who learn to accept their feelings and trust themselves are more likely to become resilient and confident adults. In this blog post, I suggest some questions for parents to consider as they decide how to best respond to their children’s problems and concerns.

  1. Do I Understand the Problem?

If the answer to this question is “no”, the first step is to gently try to talk to the child when all parties are calm. Express concerns in brief and then demonstrate a willingness to listen. Repeat what you hear and then check for accuracy. When working to understand a child’s problem, it is often more helpful to focus on process factors instead of outcomes. For example, instead of talking about grades, fights, or disciplinary problems at school, parents should ask about their child’s experiences of learning and interactions with peers and teachers that might have contributed to these events. If a child is reluctant or unable to provide enough information, it can also help to consult with teachers, other caregivers or adults who know the child well, and/or a child mental health provider. Such consultation may also help to determine whether a child is actually feeling upset, or whether a parent might simply be assuming that the child is feeling how they would (or did) feel in a similar situation.

  1. How am I Feeling About This Problem?

Because parents are also human, they can experience a wide range of emotions that influence their thinking and problem-solving behaviors. Depending on the nature of the parent-child relationship, many parents may feel considerable pressure to “fix” their child’s problems or take away unpleasant feelings to avoid feeling like “bad parents.” While most parents don’t want their children to be unhappy or struggle unnecessarily, those who thoughtfully and responsibly allow negative feelings to occur will send the message that emotions are acceptable and that they want their children to let them know when they are upset. Therefore, parents should always consider whether removing a child’s distress would be in the child’s best interest, or if they might be more inclined to do so because it is hard for them to see the child upset.

  1. Is it OK for my Child to Feel or Act this Way? 

As a parent, it feels terrible to watch your child be uncomfortable or in pain. Even so, the decision about whether it is best to allow the child to feel unhappy, anxious, angry, etc., should be based on the negative consequences for the CHILD if bad feelings are allowed to continue, as well as the relative costs of letting the child cope with the situation alone (or with some degree of help). Although parents may not be intentionally trying to control or dismiss their child’s feelings, by providing too much support or placation they may actually be signaling what is acceptable for the child to express and what feelings need to stop.

  1. Is my Child Able to Resolve This Problem on her/his own?

Parents should ensure that their expectations and the degree of support they provide are informed by a good understanding of their child’s developmental needs and abilities. To this end, obtaining a thorough neuropsychological evaluation may be helpful. If a child’s distress can be attributed to missing or underdeveloped skills, then some amount of accommodation and remediation is usually warranted. On the other hand, when it is known that a child has the capacity to be successful yet lacks confidence, parents may choose to encourage her or him to experience and master the situation independently. In cases where children might be capable of some success but will likely struggle, the best solution could represent a mixture of these approaches (i.e. providing assistance with certain aspects of a problem but encouraging independence with others).

Parenting is filled with dilemmas every day. Do you give in? How much do you change your responses to assure that your child doesn’t feel sad, scared, or angry, especially when the bad feelings may be directed towards you? How much do you try to change your child’s feelings when they seem so distraught? Every situation is different, and there is no one correct answer for every family. By seeking consultation, however, parents can become more aware of how everyday choices can support their child’s opportunity to individuate, learn how to calm themselves, and develop their own solutions to life’s problems.