It was a little thing. I got after my 14-year-old for not unloading the dishwasher.
But it felt big, and too much, and crushing. She cried and stomped and yelled. Later when she calmed down, she apologized. Said it wasn’t about the dishwasher. It was never about the dishwasher.
I get it.
It was about COVID-19 and missing her friends and remote learning. She is worried about the election and the anger in the world. She has a mom who expects some chores to get done. Feels like life piling on.
“It’s too much,” she said. “I just feel like I have no control over anything like there is nothing I can do.”
Of course, there is so much we can’t control, not just this year, but always. It’s easy to be burdened by stress and fear.
But we have total control over how we respond. There is power in that. That’s what I want my daughter to know.
Believe in Your Ability
Albert Bandura and others called this belief in our own ability to do what we need to do to solve, succeed, survive — self-efficacy. It’s the root of our persistence, grit, optimism, resilience.
Believing we are capable of getting through the tough spots actually helps us do it. We become capable, stronger. That eases our stress and in a real way enhances our sense of autonomy.
This is what I want my daughter to know. Not that we’ll be OK, though I believe that to be true. Not that it’s easy. It’s not.
I want my daughter to know that even in the upset, even under stress, even when she is sad, she is capable. Capable of getting through, making a positive difference. Feeling good again.
Though it’s my nature as a mother to step in, take over, save her from any hurt—as though I could—it’s my job as a parent to stand alongside her during the tough times. To reflect back her own strength.
If we step in too soon, we are sending a message to our kids that they can’t cope. That we don’t believe in their ability to handle hard things. This teaches them not to rely on themselves, or ask others for help. If we take over, we rob our kids of the chance to learn resilience and self-efficacy, the kind of coping skills they’ll need throughout their lives.
Stepping back a bit, isn’t easy to do, especially now, but here are four things I’m practicing.
1. Wait. Take a breath before you rush in. See what your kid is capable of and let them figure that out for themselves. Watch what they can do.
2. Offer suggestions, examples, demonstrations, encouragement, but not the absolutes. Flexible thinking and creativity are essential to problem-solving. Offer some prompts to get your child thinking, then back away, and see what they come up with. Chances are, your child will come up with a different solution, one that might be a whole lot messier, but work just as well.
3. Make room for the big feelings. It’s OK to feel scared, curious, angry, worried. Heck, I felt all of those in the last five minutes. Make it safe for your son or daughter to share whatever they are feeling. Let them air out their thoughts. Vent. Cry. Don’t judge or interrupt. Don’t try to fix, just be with them. We all need time to release, to feel validated.
4. Highlight their successes. When your child displays a resilient attitude or an effective coping strategy, call it out. “I like the way you are thinking through this,” I told my daughter the other day. Or, “I think that perspective must be helpful.” Then they can identify what’s working and helping.
When my daughter was very young she’d often get derailed by her big feelings and have a hard time managing her anxiety. We created a ritual at the end of the day, where she could blurt out all her worries. This would take about 15 minutes and then she was good to go again.
Instead of dwelling on these things during the day then, she put them on a Worry List, knowing that she didn’t have to deal immediately because she could come back to them and we’d work through them later.
We still blurt things out. Cry together. Talk things through. We still worry, but we also know that we can cope. That no matter what happens next, we are capable and there is power in that.
That’s what I want my daughter to know, now.
“Honey, You’ve got this.”