Yesterday I listened to a tearful parent describing the bullying her child had experienced at high school. The day before that, at a seminar, another parent was in tears as she talked about her child’s reaction to her divorce. And the day before that, I supervised another one of my psychologists who told me about a client’s parent who was not coping as they watched their child experience symptoms of trauma after a house fire.
One of the greatest sources of pain as a parent in life is watching your child suffer. I get it.
My children have experienced only mild amounts of adversity – and yet, when it happens it still breaks my heart. Our greatest instinct is to protect our children from suffering, and when we can’t do that, it hurts really, really bad. Dare I say, sometimes it hurts US more than our kids.
So to all the parents out there with kids and teens who are struggling, this post is for you.
It contains no tips about how to help your child, no parenting strategies and no ideas about helping your child problem solve or feel better. Instead, this is all about helping you, dear parent, find a bit of hope, a way to cope and a way for you to survive your own worry and pain.
This post is about the amazing, life changing lessons I've seen children and teens learn in the midst of challenges and struggles. This is about way children gain from struggle, how they can benefit, increase their skills and learn wisdom from sorrow.
I hope this gives you some small amount of comfort.
The Four Amazing, Life Changing Lessons Children Can Learn Though Tough Times
1. I am not alone in the world
When kids and teens go through tough stuff and they have an adult who listens, cares and even weeps tears with them - they learn this: I am not alone. When the going gets tough, there are people who will rally around me, care about me and be on my team.
Children who are loved through tough times learn that their Mum/Dad/Nana/Papa/Aunt (or whoever it is) will listen to them and be there for them – even in hard times. Learning this lesson is life changing.
Once children know that they will not be abandoned in the middle of struggles, they are more likely to take risks, develop coping skills, be less afraid of problems. When children know there are people around them who will support them in difficult times they grow to become adults who have better emotional, physical, and mental health.
Sure, kids and teens who haven’t been through challenges might know they are loved. But children who experience adversity and get loved through that adversity – they really know: I’m loved no matter what happens to me. And this lesson is worth its weight in gold.
2. Children in tough times learn that life (school/friends/people/life)isn’t perfect
Most children, when they are very little, don’t have any understanding of how tough life can be. Most have not yet struggled with the harsh realities that adults know exist. This is fine. It's okay to protect children, for some time, from some things.
But at some point, children will be exposed to the darker sides of life. People aren’t always kind. Money is finite. People die. Relationships don’t always last. School isn’t always interesting. Decisions aren’t always fair. The question is - when should this happen?
The truth is, we usually don't have a choice as to when our kids learn this. But I suspect that adults who have not experienced these things in their childhood tend to have a tough time in some ways. Young adults I see who have had little adversity to deal with sometimes fall apart at a hint of drama. In contrast, people who go through tough times during childhood learn early on that some problems are not always “solved” but “lived with”.
These kids know that life can be difficult, and that fairy tales don’t exist. They don’t have to learn this as adults – they know it – they really know it. And this can save them from a lot of pain and a lot of falling apart later on.
3. Children in tough times learn that they are fighters, and a problem solvers, and copers.
When children experience challenges and tough times, and then find coping strategies – well this is when the magic really happens. As hard times unfold, many children develop coping skills, ways of communicating hard stuff, how to get to sleep when you are worried, how to ask for help and how to accept it. They listen to real – and tough conversations where the big issues of life are discussed and they join in. They learn about finding things to do rather than sit and listen to the voices in their head. They learn how to take a breath and keep going after shocks and hurts. They learn to stand up for themselves. They learn resilience.
A study done in the US a few years ago asked adults about the adversity or tragedy they had experienced as a child – whether they felt they had a small amount, a medium amount or a very high amount. Then they asked them about their coping skills now in adult hood. An interesting picture emerged from the results. The adults who felt they had a very high amount of adversity or tragedy in their childhood had low coping skills as adults. This probably isn’t greatly surprising.
But here’s the kicker, the adults who felt they had a very SMALL amount of adversity or tragedy in childhood also had low coping skills as adults. It seems that experiencing some tough times, and some challenges in life as a child leads to the maximum amount of coping skills as adults.
Our kids and teens are learning incredible skills when they go through tough times, skills that they will have for their life. And they can see themselves as fighters, problem solvers and copers. Which is exactly what they are.
4. Children in tough times learn that challenges are not catastrophes
I’m a little hesitant to add this one because for example children, their challenges really are catastrophic. If you are in the Phillipines for example and your child has lost all their family members, home and community – then this one doesn’t apply to you. And other situations that children go through are truly tragic.
However, often our children are experiencing really, really tough times but they are not catastrophic. On a scale from stubbing your toe as a “1” right up to global warfare/catastrophe as a “100”, most of our children are probably on the lower end of 100 than the higher.
Most children, once they go through tough times, start to understand this. They figuratively check their pulse and realise that they have survived the difficult circumstances. They notice that they still can have fun, laugh and have moments of being okay, even while they are going through something really tough. They see that the sun still rose and that they, fundamentally, right now – they are okay.
This means, next time the challenges come – these children have the potential to see context and perspective. They can see the tough times in life as really sad, tragic even – but not the end of the world.
So to my fellow worried, sad parents of sad and worried kids, when you’ve done everything you can for your child, and you are lying in bed at night thinking about their struggles – and your heart is breaking, remember these things.
If you are empathic and caring, if you are helping your child face their challenges head on, if you are helping your child notice their coping skills and the joy in their life – then your child, even while they are suffering, is learning some amazing stuff.
Hold on to that, and maybe, just maybe you might be able to get back to sleep.