Parents often ask me if there is ever a time when our wisdom as adults is useful to give to our children in stressful situations. Yes, obviously we have experiences and/or knowledge that our child does not have that could prove helpful to him. Timing is the key. Following the child’s lead is the best way to know if and when our input is appropriate. In general, children are more capable than we realize in their ability to self-heal. A self-reliant child is unlikely to ask for advice – when not asked we are better off not giving it.
The worst time to give advice is when a person (of any age) is in the midst of agonizing and pouring out their heart. I have found that most of the time children will come to their own wise conclusions if their expression of pain is fully accepted through listening and validation. When our wisdom is essential, they will let us know with specific questions. About once a year, this occurs with my children in the area of emotional distress. In the areas of learning, it happens more often.
So why do some children ask for advice a lot more often than others when in emotional distress?
Self-reliance and self-trust are present at birth. Since many of us have been treated with mistrust since childhood, we learned to not trust our own feelings. In turn, we taught our children to not trust themselves as well. A child who has developed a consistent pattern of needing someone else’s advice when emotions are on the line needs a vote of confidence from others. Parents who are wanting to help their children rediscover self-reliance and self-trust can begin by implementing the following steps:
1. Share with the child your new insights and promise to listen with no commentary next time. (They will love it!) Be honest and real. You are learning.
2. When the child once again expresses the dependency that has become a habit and asks you what to do, respond with the question, “What do you think?” Validate with, “I am sure you can come up with a solution,” or “This is a tough situation – take your time.”
3. If the child looks too numb or confused, he may have lost temporarily his confidence to generate his own solutions. You can help with an encouraging statement like “You know best”, or, “You can trust yourself”. If still unresolved for a long time, offer a few possibilities, ending with “and you may have another better idea”.
4. When resorting to giving advice, you can utilize some important strategies: Offer a few ideas, appearing unattached to any of them. Let the child know that she may have a better idea and she should do only what she feels is right. Be short and simple, avoiding lectures. Speak positively about solutions without offering judgments.
5. Gradually give less and less advice and more and more votes of confidence in your child’s ability and rightness.
6. When your refusal to give advice brings on crying or a tantrum, validate the feelings with something like: “You wanted me to come up with the solution, and you feel deserted and helpless. I love you and I know you are capable … I do know that you know what to do. You may feel helpless and incapable now, but you will find an answer.” Primarily – listen. The crying will do a lot of good toward restoring your child’s self-reliance. Once crying ceases, the quietness that follows can often help your child realize internal answers.
7. In a happy neutral time, talk with your child about how she likes to be responded to when upset, and get clear on any new rules she may want to establish. Do this a few times between occurrences of upset but not while things are stirring.
These rules cannot be followed rigidly. We need to be compassionate and responsive. We need not withhold support when our child seems unready to come up with her own solution. As we offer her more opportunities for self-reliance, we need to observe and respond to her cues of readiness as well. We cannot force a child to become emotionally self-reliant. Sometimes it is compassionate to free the child from the dependency on our advice; other times it is compassionate to yield to their dependency on our advice.
Once you have succeeded in helping your child break the habit of dependency – and recovered from your habit of jumping to his rescue with advice – become a curious and respectful listener. Not only your child’s emotional well-being and behavior improve – so will yours. Remember, emotions are never wrong; all feelings are undeniable, real, and right. Circumstances and actions may need to change, but what one is feeling deserves to be heard and acknowledged.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort
Reprinted and revised with permission from The Nurturing Parent.