When people we care about have problems, there’s a strong compulsion to try to help, to fix things for them, to step in and make it all better. When we see a child struggling, it’s even more compelling to intervene, but is it always the right thing to do?
Try thinking back to the last time you felt unsure about something, or saddened, or frustrated, which were the responses that helped you and which were the ones that hindered? If you’re anything like me, there will have been times when you wished kind friends trying to help had just left you alone. We don’t always want to hear advice, no matter how sound, we don’t always want to hear solutions or appeasements. Sometimes we’re not ready, sometimes we need the chance to fully live through the negativity we are experiencing.
It’s incredibly important for children to realise that their feelings can be lived through without having to be ‘fixed’ as soon as possible. Finding out that it’s possible to endure negative emotions, to manage them and come out the other side perhaps a little wiser about oneself and one’s life, is an essential part of growing up and growing emotional intelligence. Sometimes you just have tolerate the blues without fighting to get rid of them. Sometimes trying to fix someone’s problem can feel to them like you’re trying to shut them down.
So when you’re confronted with your child dealing with difficult feelings, try and take a deep breath and stay open to what is being presented to you. Acknowledge what you see honestly, for example, “I can see you’re upset, would you like to tell me about it?” and allow the child to take the lead, if they want to, while you resist the urge to make it better as quickly as possible.
By trying to be too helpful, we can end up denying our children their feelings. Much better to let them know you are around to offer support if and when they need it. Give them some space and they’re much more likely to come to you.
There’s a part of my Storytelling show where I pretend to fall asleep on the floor in the front of the children. Often, this totally freaks my core audience of 4-8 year olds, despite my comedy snoring.
Depending on age, group, mood etc., they either shout and scream at me to wake up (in a way that starts off playfully but if I push the duration, veers into slight desperation), shyly approach and prod me, or they fall silent and look to their adults to sort out this unexpected turn of events. There is always the laughter of relief when I wake up.
One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is when a crew member comes back from some R&R on a distant planet, and brings with them a game.
It’s a computer game that you play via a special pair of glasses, the aim being to use your concentration to deposit virtual spinning discs into randomly appearing cones. It soon becomes apparent that something else is going on, as more sets of the glasses are replicated and the entire crew becomes so obsessed they cease to function, becoming addicted to the endorphin release that the game triggers. Even Captain Picard succumbs - I know! Interestingly it is left to youth, in the shape of Wesley Crusher, to save the day.