Here’s a scenario: Your daughter, a junior in high school, is late for school and is insisting that she can’t enter the classroom because everyone will look at her and assume that she did something wrong. She’s having a crying fit, saying that you have to let her miss the whole day at school, or at least let her wait to go to school until it’s a passing period or a recess. Here’s another: Your son, a good student and something of a perfectionist, is insisting that he’s sick with a stomachache. But the truth is that the English teacher moved a test forward, leaving him with less time to study; you suspect he’s anxious about failing -- or not doing as well as he normally does. And a third: Your middle school girl is struggling at school because the crowd she always used to hang with has turned against her and she finds that she’s alone at lunch. There are other kids she could connect with but they all feel like misfits to her -- plus she’s anxious about reaching out to new kids, given that the old ones have rejected her. And a final one: Your son, who loves computer science, applied for a special after-school program that you know he’s really qualified for and would love. But when the acceptance list is posted, to your amazement, you find that he hasn’t made the cut. He says he’s okay, but has hunkered down in his room and isn’t talking to anyone.
At first glance, these situations don’t really have a lot in common, unless you count that they’re all about the difficulties of being a teen. But scratch the surface a little and you’ll see some surprising similarities.
Try this: Imagine that the kids in these scenarios aren’t teens. Make them younger -- 10 maybe, or 8. What happens? The situations often become something where you intervene: You talk to the teacher about the lateness or explain that little Johnny really needs an extra day to prepare for that test. You go to the school to talk about social dynamics in the class or you call the program to find out what happened and why Sam wasn’t accepted.
Except that as your kid gets older, you can -- and should -- get involved less and less, or not at all. But what happens to your child? And the anxiety or disappointment or fear that they feel in these kinds of situations? Do you leave him or her alone with the feelings as well?
Not at all. You can’t fix situations for your kids, but you can do something even more important, something I call “lending them your strength”. Here’s a big secret of parenting: They have trouble believing that they can succeed if you can’t imagine it for them. So you show it to them through your eyes. Take our girl who’s melting down about the social disaster she imagines from being late: “I know, Sally, that you’re worried what people will think, but I have confidence that it will be okay and your lateness isn’t ultimately a big thing. Go ahead and pack up your books so I can take you to school.” Note that you both help her imagine that she’ll be okay and insist that she move through the difficulty, rather than around it. After all, if we let them slide away from experiences that are tough for them, not only will they never learn how to manage them, but they also will get the message that you, too, think that this kind of situation is so scary that they can’t manage it -- not at all the message you want to give. Let’s think about our boy who’s afraid of failing: “I can feel how scared you are that you won’t do well on this test. I have faith that you’re as prepared as you need to be. And it’s nothing to miss school over. Go ahead and pack up your books....”
Of course you can brainstorm with them how to make things easier. If she’s willing, role play with your daughter how she might approach a new friend and talk to her about popularity and what friendship means. Perhaps you can talk to your son about the importance of failure -- and of picking himself up and trying again. Ask them what’s one thing they could do that might make it feel easier for them and what they think will happen if they try that. But remember that even if they don’t want to hear from you, that’s okay too. You are doing something to help when you believe that they have the skills to work it out for themselves -- and when you gently insist that they do. Remember how these difficult moments in your life helped shape you into the strong adult you are today. And lend them that strength so they can grow into the strong adult you know they can become.