Many times in sessions or in between sessions, parents ask me what they should say or not say to their kids when they are struggling emotionally. Whether it’s stress, sadness, a loss, problems with their friends, problems at school, it’s not easy as a parent to know what to say and often times we worry we will say the wrong thing.
When our kids are experiencing a tough time, it’s hard to know what to say and often times we want to fix the problem. The truth is, most times, we don’t need to fix anything. We just need to be there. What can help makes things better is the connection you can offer. A simple “I’m happy you shared this with me, can I sit here with you?” can be enough. The act of putting down our phones, chores, stop making dinner, etc and physically sitting with them while they share what’s going on, is how this connection is built.
What strains or even breaks that connection? Trying to “fix it” or trying to put a “silver lining” on the issue. We all can come up with “worse” scenarios every time we hear a problem, can’t we? “Well it can always be worse!” While potentially true, this minimizes how someone feels in that moment. Perhaps in the future, the person struggling would benefit from putting a positive spin or silver lining to the issue, but right now, in the moment, when the tears are flowing or the anger is raging and you have the privilege of sitting with them while they share why, your role is to listen, be present and show empathy. Also, remember this is about them and their feelings. It’s not a time to add in “this reminds me of when something similar happened to me.” Sometimes the right thing to say, is barely anything at all.
Another tough one can be wanting to fix the problem for your child. We suddenly may want to know who we can call/email/visit, so this problem goes away. Or the well meaning, “you should do this or that.” I would be lying if I said I’ve never done this, especially with my kids. It’s easy to jump into protective mode for them, isn’t it? And again, perhaps in the future a good problem solving conversation would be very helpful and what is needed. But hold back a bit. In the raw, painful moments when our loved ones feel alone and “trapped.” Try to sit there and be there. Develop the connection. Don’t judge, don’t fix, don’t try to make it better by comparing it to something worse or remind them that at least they have other things going for them. Sometimes just saying “I’m glad you shared this with me, is there anything I can do?” shows them that you are here for them whenever and however they need.
Here is a link to a short clip from Dr. Brene Brown. I think she explains empathy pretty well and gives a couple examples of what it is not. It’s not always easy to know what to say and what not to say. Sometimes we don’t need to say much. We just need to be there. Be present. Putting aside all distractions and showing that person that they matter, they are important and they have your attention.
But what can I do if my child is struggling with anxiety, depression or a reoccurring problem with school, peer group, etc? There are things that they can learn in therapy to help them when they are struggling. Therapy can help teach them tools and strategies that can be a part of helping them cope in a healthy way.
” The greatest gift you can give to another is the purity of your attention.”
– Dr Richard Moss