The only way kids will learn to be independent, to advocate for themselves, and begin to gain a mature perspective and understanding, is to solve their own problems, however imperfectly.
“Mia is being mean to me.”
This wasn’t the first time my kindergartner had complained about this formerly close friend saying unkind and untrue things about her. My daughter brought it up repeatedly, but it didn’t seem to be affecting her in a particularly deep way. But the ongoing nature of Mia’s behavior bothered me, and part of me wanted to pick up the phone to talk to her teacher, or even Mia’s parents. Instead, I did what my wife and I always try to do when one of our children comes to us with a problem involving other people: I encouraged our daughter to tell Mia (not her real name) how she feels about the taunts, and to discuss the problem with her teacher, if need be. She assured me she did this, and we went on to discuss her own feelings about it all. Soon enough, she was onto another topic, and another activity.
This wasn’t the first time we encouraged, cajoled, even insisted that one of our children address her problems herself. The only way kids will learn to be independent, to advocate for themselves, and begin to gain a mature perspective and understanding, is to solve their own problems, however imperfectly. They need to manage their own relationships, without intervention from Mom or Dad. And while it might be scary at first, the more they do it, the more empowered they will feel to speak their minds and communicate freely and effectively with others when conflicts come up (which they often do).
It’s certainly not easy to sit on the sidelines when your child is struggling. As parents, we’re naturally tempted to step in and fix our kids’ problems. We don’t want to see them hurting, we want them to understand that we have their backs and love them, and of course, we have a level of perspective and understanding they lack.
But jumping in to resolve clashes and disappointments risks making the issues about ourselves. And that can provoke more anxiety, not less. Suddenly, a child’s issue is now a family problem, with all the baggage that parental involvement brings. He sees his parents siding with a friend or teacher against him, or if they have taken his side, they are tamping down his efforts to make his independent way in the world.
So instead of trying to settle kids’ conflicts for them, here’s a better way, according to experts and my own experience:
Listen to your child and empathize. Encourage your child to discuss the issue with you, making clear you will keep it in confidence unless she gives you permission to do otherwise (or if you cannot, such as in cases of abuse, where you need to alert the proper authorities, but that’s a different story). Whatever the problem and whoever’s at fault in your mind, express empathy and support and offer comfort and plenty of hugs. Your child should always know he can come to you, anytime, in any situation.
Give kids the tools to address their problems. Just telling kids to go do something intimidating is a recipe for failure. Instead, lead them to think of how they can resolve their problems, in as detailed a fashion as you can. Ask probing—and leading— questions, such as, “When do you think you can talk to Jane about why she’s not letting you play tag at recess? What would you say?” Make it a brainstorm session and offer gentle suggestions for how to improve on their ideas. Suggest role-playing and act out the scenario. You could say, “I’ll pretend I am Jane. We’re on the bus home, the time you said would be good to talk to her. Let’s see how it goes.”
Model the correct behavior. Let your children see and hear how you resolve conflicts. Don’t shy away from having those difficult conversations in your life and don’t let issues linger; address them, and talk about what you did and how it worked out (or didn’t).
Make clear you are there for them, but let your kids know they still need to address some problems on their own. Following these steps is a great way to help ensure children feel safe, heard, and supported, even if they still must take the difficult steps of addressing conflicts and disagreements themselves.
Of course, in many cases, no amount of prodding at home will convince your kid to take a deep breath and talk to her teacher about that bad grade or to a friend about why she’s being excluded from a sleepover or a playground game.
But that’s no reason for parents to step in and fill the void. If, and when, it’s important enough, your child will step up and do what’s needed. And if he won’t? He is making the decision to live with the consequences.
Yet there are instances—for example, when there is chronic bullying, unsafe situations, ongoing academic or behavior issues, or health or emotional concerns—where the go-it-alone approach has run its course and it’s time to step in and help.
But even in these cases it’s important that we not take over entirely; children should remain part of the discussion and should be actively involved in the solutions—including taking the first steps and trying to address conflicts before we intervene. No one said parenting would be easy, and watching your child deal with this type of pain is a unique sort of torture for parents. But endure and stay strong: sometimes, your child needs you—to do nothing at all.