All children will have to face uncomfortable challenges in their lives at some point. We don't need to put obstacles in their way so that they can 'learn to overcome them', but equally, we don't need to and shouldn't fix every difficulty they face either. We have well built brain and bodily systems to help us overcome problems in our lives, and getting to flex these 'issue-solving muscles' as we move through life is really important in developing a sense of resilience and ability to pull through when things feel tough.
But if, as parents, we are not here to fix our children's problems, what is our role? Do we just stand mutely by and watch our children struggle, if we can't fix things for them? Or is there a third, more engaged, option?
I find it helps to think about what I, as an adult, need when I'm faced with a problem - yes, our children's brains aren't fully developed yet, but they have the building blocks in place already to tackle frustration and work through it to find some kind of acceptable solution, just like we do. I will often, for example, throw down my work in frustration, stomp off to my other half for a listening ear, and tell him I'm not doing it Any. More. I can't do it. I've had enough and That's. That.
At this point, there is a huge temptation for most of us to try to fix the problem for our loved ones - but actually, only I can fix this for myself. My husband is a tremendous support to me, but even he can't do my work for me, or fix what's hard. He knows that I need to offload what's going on for me before I can think clearly. So, he listens to me lovingly as I vent about how unfair it is that things aren't going better, and he waits. When I've had a chance to vent, I might then ask for his help with something, but more often than not, once the frustration (or fear, or whatever it is that I'm feeling) has been shed, I will head straight on back and get on with whatever needs doing.
If he jumps in with ideas of solutions, not only will I not feel heard - not to mention rejecting his ideas outright because I am just Not Ready To Listen Right Now, Thank You Very Much - but I will also feel disempowered. Because if the answers are so easy, why didn't I think of them myself? And because I need to know that he believes that I will KNOW when to ask for the help I need. Which is when I need it - and not before.
And I can apply these same principles to my children when I listen through their fears and frustrations in life. And it is hard to listen and not fix sometimes! But when we hold that our children are good thinkers, that they want what's right for themselves, and that they will get there in their own good time, it is much easier to just hold that space for them and see where they take things.
Here's a wonderful story from a thoughtful parent in our Journeys in Parenting community, who had to do exactly this for her amazing son. She works hard to parent in an intentional way, and uses the information around her to apply ideas to her own family to move forward in the way her family needs - she wrote the following after reading an article on just this idea of 'Listening without fixing'. Here's what she shared…
This article was a good read for me this morning. I am learning so much about how to interpret things. My youngest got upset at school yesterday, and again this morning, because he has been given the part of Joseph in the year group's nativity. He has 3 lines, and will obviously be centre-stage for much of the time. He told me when he was upset that he doesn't like the idea of all the adults looking at him, and worries about saying his lines. Part of me thought I should just tell the teacher to give the part to someone else, but instead I chose to Staylisten with him, gently empathising with comments about how 'these things can be scary'.
And then he decided that he would like to practise his lines.
We then talked about what he wanted to do now. And he just said that he wanted me to tell his teacher that he was nervous about it, but he'd try for a while.
I think if I had simply 'fixed' the problem by asking the teacher to pass the part on, I might actually be doing him a disservice. He generally rises to a challenge and I think once he got more confident with the play, he might regret not doing it. He knows if in a week or so he's still not happy, I will discuss this with the teacher, but I'm really pleased with how Staylistening and not immediately fixing showed that despite his fears, he does seem to want to overcome them himself and not have his problem 'fixed' out of his control.
This was such a fantastic outcome, and really gave so much power and control back to her wonderful son, to figure out what he wanted to do - what he felt he could do in the situation. But the story didn't end there - this lovely parent kept me posted on how things went, and here is what happened in the end…
Well, I can give a final update now! Since the above, my son hasn't been upset, and was quite happy practising for the play. On Monday he performed twice for both halves of the school. I heard from one of the other parents (who was helping out), and from my older child, that he did brilliantly at these performances for the rest of the school.
However, the final test was yesterday when he performed it for the parents - as he had said from the start, his main fear was the adults (he is generally confident around other children, but is often shy around unknown adults). It was a painful start for me, as I could see from when he walked in he was very nervous, but he was joining in the singing (nervously!) and moving around in the play as expected. But when it came to his first line, he froze and burst into tears.
Luckily, immediately afterwards he was to walk with 'Mary' to the back, so the teacher brought him to me (at the back). We had a cuddle for the duration of the song - I didn't say much, just that I knew it was really hard for him and he was doing amazingly. Then the teacher came over and offered to say his lines for him. So when it was time for him and Mary to walk back onto the stage, he did so, the teacher said his lines, and then he seemed to relax once speaking in front of adults was over. And he even started smiling and joining in the songs more from then on.
I am really proud of how determined he was to try, and to carry on after tears, as he so wanted to do it, even though it was clearly REALLY hard for him. I think simply validating his feelings and empathising helped him so much, and the fact that the teachers were great in saying how well he was doing, and there was no pressure to 'achieve' helped him. Afterwards, he's been fine, just glad it's over but also happy he did it. My feeling is that it could have been traumatic for him, but I think that processing his emotions in the moment and knowing it was ok to feel them has been key to him being able to get through this as he did.