I still remember my third-grade track meet. I tripped and fell during the 50-meter dash, prompting jeers from my classmates and coming in last place. My mother was waiting for me when I came home from school, and I burst into tears the moment I saw her. She couldn’t undo what happened, but her quiet listening made me feel as though I weren’t suffering alone.
Part of growing up means facing difficulties-the loss of a pet, a fight with a friend, a failed project at school, the death of a close relative. As parents we have the opportunity to be the safe harbor in the storm, the refuge when the going gets rough.
Yet sometimes being a refuge doesn’t come naturally. It can be difficult to know what to say to a child in tears. Should you try to lighten things up, or should you try to get him (or her) talking about the situation? Should you downplay what happened, or should you try to solve the problem for your child?
Although hard and fast rules are hard to come by, we can assess situations and respond to them thoughtfully, sincerely and appropriately. Here are some suggestions for comforting a hurting child.
Let your child say it
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when your child tells you he is upset about something is to deny that you are troubled by what he is telling you. Let your child talk out the problem. This will allow him to begin working through the healing process.
If you try to change the subject, make a joke or come up with reasons the problem isn’t a problem, you send him the message that you don’t want to hear his problems and that expressing sadness is not acceptable. Responses such as “It’s nothing to get upset about,” “You’re acting like a baby,” “It can’t be that bad” and “Don’t worry” minimize the problem and lay a truckload of guilt on the suffering child.
“Parents can get so panicky about not knowing what to do or say that they shut the suffering child out to make themselves feel more comfortable,” says one family counselor. “It’s not that their intentions are bad. Most people don’t even know they’re doing it. But rather than say, ‘Don’t cry; it’ll be okay,’ your child needs to be told to go ahead and cry.”
Calmly accept your child’s situation for what it is, and don’t pretend things are better than they are. Responses such as “I’m sorry to hear the bad news,” “You’ve been through a lot,” and “That sounds like a tough situation” communicate concern and acceptance to your child.
Listen carefully to your child. Encourage him to talk about what is bothering him. In most cases, a problem shared is a problem halved. Show your child you’re interested in what he says by maintaining eye contact, nodding occasionally and spurring him on with sympathetic expressions such as “Uh-huh,” “Mmmm” and “I see.”
Try to see things from a child’s perspective and express that understanding. For example, you might say, “I know you are disappointed because you worked so hard and still did not make it on the team.”
Don’t try to finish your child’s sentences for him because you think you know what he is going to say, because you may be wrong. Let the child do the talking. You may be surprised to find what is actually troubling him.
Being there for your children
You may be at a loss for words because you’ve never found yourself in a situation like the one your child is going through. “It’s okay to be silent,” says another family counselor. “What’s most important is that you be there for your child. Be honest with her. Tell her you don’t know what to say but you still want to be there. Sometimes the simple presence of a parent is all that is needed to erase feelings of anxiety in children.”
Perhaps nothing is more comforting to a grief-stricken child than the warmth of his parent’s body. Don’t hesitate to soothe with your hands, put your arms around his shoulders, hug him or hold him tightly on your lap. Cradle your child in your arms just as you would an infant.
Be careful not to emphasize independence and self-reliance so much that your child feels guilty whenever he feels the need to become dependent and babied for a bit. Allow your child to be emotionally dependent on you for as long as it takes him to regain composure and strength.
Offer advice when requested
For the most part, a tearful child does not want to hear a dozen solutions to his problem. Giving unsolicited advice is another way we cut off communication: “You tell yourself, If I can distract my child by thinking of some brilliant advice, she’ll stop crying.”
However, once your child knows you accept how he feels, he may be ready to move on to the solution stage and ask you what you think he should do. Be prepared to share possible solutions with him, but don’t offer your advice until he lets you know he’s ready to hear it.
Your child may feel that no one else has ever dropped the ball in a championship football game or felt as frustrated about a bad test score. Let him know that other people have also had the same problems. Share an experience of your own that is similar to what he is going through. If you know of aunts, uncles or grandparents who have been through the same experiences, pass their stories along to him.
Remind your child it is human to make mistakes, but God will give us the strength we need to carry on. You can emphasize God’s love and faithfulness, especially in times of trouble.
Give your child time
If several days pass and your child is still feeling down about his situation, you don’t necessarily have cause to worry. Depending on its severity, a problem can take weeks or even months to fully recover from.
“It takes time to work through the grief process,” says one counselor. “Try to understand what your child is going through. You may wish she was her usual, cheerful self, but you shouldn’t expect her to cover up her sadness just so you can feel more comfortable. Give your child all the time she needs.”
Of course, limits are understandable and necessary. If your child’s troubles are getting worse or are starting to affect his performance at school, or he’s no longer comforted by your listening to him, this is the time to seek help.
You may make a few mistakes along the way. No one should expect you to know what to say or how to act in every situation. Remind yourself that you’re better off saying something less than ideal to your child than shutting him out because you don’t know what to say. What matters most is that he knows he doesn’t have to face difficult times alone. GN