Among the many challenging components of being a parent is knowing what to do when our children come home and share something painful or difficult with us. On the one hand, we want to be there to help them solve their problems; there are few things in life more difficult than watching our children in distress, be it physical or emotional. On the other hand, we know that our children must become independent and resilient, and bailing them out too quickly or too often can ultimately prevent them from developing the strength they will need throughout their lives.
A psychologist friend of mine once said that being a parent is analogous to being a consultant. We need to always be “on call” for our children, but they may only want to access our insights or wisdom when it’s convenient for them or when they’re ready to talk about what has been bothering them. That’s why we have to steel ourselves when our children come to us at the end of a long day (just as we’re winding down) and present us with a difficult situation that happened—even though we had earlier asked them how school was, and they had responded with the all-too-common answer of “fine.”
A recent column by psychologist and clinical instructor Lisa Damour, “Parents of Teenagers, Stuck Taking Out the Emotional Trash,” discusses this aspect of parenting. She reminds us that sometimes teenagers genuinely want advice from their parents, and sometimes they just want to share what happened without necessarily desiring that we say or do anything. Often the mere act of telling us about their difficulties allows adolescents to move on. This can be incredibly vexing for us when we have stayed awake all night worrying about how to help them.
So, what do we parents do when our children tell us about something troubling? As Damour says, “Usually, nothing. Nothing, that is, beyond taking on, and taking out, the emotional trash. For many of the problems teenagers face, dumping the hard feeling is a remedy unto itself. Making my mom upset freed me to find a solution to my homesickness. In my work as a psychologist, I’ve known plenty of teenagers to bomb a test, fall apart about the grade at school, come home and unsettle their parents by acting cavalier about it, and then buckle down for the next exam.” As much as we might want to fix the situation, it may not be in our power to do so, and it may not even be what our children want or require.
Obviously, we need to ascertain if something is so problematic that it may necessitate an intervention; but as Damour reminds us, there will be many other situations in the lives of our children that may demand nothing more than our listening, showing empathy, and waiting to see if and how things resolve themselves. Believe me, as a fellow parent, I understand how difficult this can be, and when I am in this situation, I always try to remind myself of the singer Tom Petty’s sage advice, “The Waiting Is the Hardest Part.”