Their fears might seem insignificant to us, but they're important to our kids.
Yesterday I had a rare opportunity to go swimming with just one of my children — 10-year-old Charlotte. It’s been a busy summer and I haven’t had nearly as much one-on-one time with the kids as I’d like, so I treasured the chance to have a little heart-to-heart with my youngest daughter.
But before I could so much as open my mouth, Charlotte instigated a float-flipping battle, which morphed into a handstand competition. Eventually she ran out of energy (thank goodness) and we both flopped back onto our floats to enjoy the sunshine.
“So, Chars,” I said, “are you excited about 5th grade or nervous?”
“I’m excited,” she said eagerly. After a beat, she followed it up with, “but mostly nervous.”
Usually conversations with my kids occur within limited time frames. In order to maximize this time, I usually zero in on the problem, sift for the cause, and help them patch together a solution. But yesterday we had time, so I just listened. I didn’t offer solutions because to be honest, I didn’t have any. Most of Charlotte’s anxiety centered around hypotheticals (“What if I don’t get the homeroom teacher I like?” or “What if my best friend isn’t in my homeroom?”), and there’s no way to solve a problem that hasn’t — and may never–occur. So I just let her talk.
By the end of the conversation, she had transitioned from fears for the coming year to elaborating on all the details she was most excited about. I hadn’t contributed much at all besides the occasional, “yes, that would be hard,” or “I can see why that makes you nervous.” Charlotte had talked herself out of anxiety and into excitement on her own … yet she still looked at me while we were drying off and said, “Thanks, Mom. You made me feel so much better.”
I smiled, gave her a hug, and secretly high-fived myself for the most effortless parenting win ever. But that conversation got me thinking about how we as parents can help our kids come to terms with everyday anxieties on their own, rather than offering solutions to them. Here are three simple ways to help guide your kids into confronting their own anxieties, rather than trying to knock those anxieties down yourself.
1Listen more than you talk
As adults, we have the benefit of hindsight—not to mention years of experience. We know that our child’s 5th grade homeroom teacher is unlikely to have much impact on their lives … in fact, some of us can’t even remember their names! But the challenges our kids are facing this upcoming school year are the biggest challenges they have yet to face, simply because they haven’t yet faced them. They need the freedom to express their fears and anxieties without interruption … and as parents, we need to take the time to listen carefully. You might be surprised how much you learn about your child when you stop trying to solve their problems and start just listening to them. I know I was.
2Validate their emotions
Validating your child’s emotions doesn’t mean giving their anxieties a gold star and telling them it’s okay to remain stuck there. It just means acknowledging that those feelings are real, normal, and reasonable. It means NOT minimizing or dismissing their fears, even (perhaps especially) when you know those fears are small in the grand scheme of things. Much the way God never minimizes our own anxieties — however small they are on the cosmic scale; we still trust that we can bring them to him. We need to reflect that unconditional love to our kids, and let them come to us with worries big and small. Only after we listen and acknowledge their worries should we offer advice or guidance.
3Let them face their fears
All parents want to help their kids, in every possible way. We want them to succeed and to be happy doing so, but we often forget that success (and the happiness it brings) is borne of facing and overcoming obstacles. It’s so hard to resist the temptation to offer instant solutions to their problems—or worse yet, solve their problems for them—but it’s an essential part of our responsibility as parents. Letting our kids confront and handle the stresses of the upcoming school year, from academic to social, is absolutely crucial if we want them to grow up and be capable of succeeding. That doesn’t mean we don’t guide them … but our guidance should be offered, not imposed.
We can’t, and shouldn’t, pick our kids up when life gets hardest. We should be there at every moment, but they have to learn to face their fears at some point. Far better that they start early with the small fears, while we guide, comfort, and encourage them.