Should We Solve Our Children’s Problems?
I was at a dinner party the other night and the two children at our table had a typical little squabble and the younger one turned to his dad for help. After the situation was resolved, the dad asked me, as a therapist in DC working with parents and adults “how much should we try and solve our kid’s problems?” This is a question that I often ask myself. We all want that clean and concrete answer that we can look up in some all-knowing parenting book. The problem is that most parenting questions fall into grey areas where the answers are not so clear-cut. We all know “lawnmower” parents who like to clear all challenges out of the way for their children. This is a disservice to the children because as they get older their problems become bigger, and children need to know how to solve problems. The opposite to the lawnmower parent might recommend a total hands-off approach and let their children figure something out for themselves. This can turn a child into an adult who doesn’t know how to ask for help. My answer? Well, it’s somewhere in the middle.
Here are some helpful guidelines to think about when your child comes to you with a problem.
- Listen and VALIDATE: When our child comes to us, we need to slow down and listen, really listen to what our child is saying. The way we can show our child that we are listening is to reflect back to them what we heard them say. Going back to my original example of the sibling conflict, you could say, “You really want me to know that …” and fill in the blank. Secondly, we want to validate our child’s feelings. I always need to remind parents that validating is not the same as agreeing. Validating a child’s feelings shows that you are listening and that their feelings are heard and important to you. To validate, you can say something like “It felt hurtful when …” or “You didn’t like …” and fill in the blank.
- See what, if any, solutions they have tried on their own. We don’t want to hop in and offer solutions right away. Initially, try and keep the child in the position where they can advocate for themselves. If they haven’t tried anything, investigate what ideas they have and then allow them to go try those ideas out. Encourage them to try several different options. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. This is empowering for children, and lets them know that you think they are able to come up with valid options. Asking them what ideas they have says that you believe in them.
- If they have tried and are not successful, let the child know it’s OK to ask for help. Sometimes no matter how much a child tries, they cannot solve the problem. Verbalize to your child that you recognize their efforts, but that it is ok to ask for help. Learning when to ask for help is a skill that will take them well into adulthood. Parents need to advocate on behalf of their child to provide emotional and physical safety.
Our jobs as parents is to prepare our children to go into the world with skills that will help them be successful in whatever they pursue, both personally and professionally. We want them to be able to solve their own problems, but we also want them to know how to ask for help when they need it.