My daughter and I were watching videotapes of her when she was little. At 17 years of age, she likes to laugh at herself revisiting times when she was small and still trying things she has since learned she is not good at, such as singing and dancing. In one of the tapes when she was about 18 months of age, we watch her carefully climb over the arm of a child-sized directors chair and pull a child-sized table close to her. She carefully navigated this challenge with great purpose. All of a sudden, when she had achieved her goal, she looked up at me filming her and said, “stuck.” Within moments, she managed to reconsider her dilemma and push the table away, freeing herself, and life went on without a hitch.
This moment on tape captures the quintessential challenge that faces parents every day. While seemingly simple, it is actually quite complex. To begin with, there is the level of distress my child was experiencing. How “stuck” was she? Was she frightened, scared, overwhelmed or facing a manageable challenge? Was I, her mother, aware of her distress, reading it accurately, too involved in my videotaping? She had gotten herself into the jam. Was it reasonable to let her struggle to get herself out of it? If so, how long should I let her struggle?
There was so much information being communicated in such a brief moment, I don’t think I would have realized it if it hadn’t been on videotape. Her looking to me for support let me know she knew she wasn’t alone. Her body was a bit tense, but her attention was focused on the challenge before her. Her voice was slightly alarmed but she wasn’t screaming, crying or yelling. Somehow I knew that by my being there and not intervening, she had a good chance of figuring it out for herself. After all, my goal as a parent has always been to raise a self-confident and self-reliant child, so giving her time to struggle seemed appropriate. How long I would have waited and how much distress I would have let her experience is a question that is not answered by this tape but is called into question every time a child faces a challenge.
I have come to treasure this small piece of film. It often comes to mind when I am working with parents. How do we as parents manage our child’s struggles? When is it the right time to intervene? Some children are vocal and demanding which may drive a parent to take action and to resolve the problem too quickly. However, there is often a cost in the long run in that this response can teach children the lesson that if they scream loud enough, someone else will fix it for them. This interferes with children’s efforts to figure out how to solve their own struggles and move beyond their “stuck” spots. On the other hand, some parents are averse to their child’s demands and become overwhelmed, resentful and walk away, leaving the child to struggle to resolve challenges themselves. What children may learn in this situation is that they are alone and limited to their own resources, which may lead to them becoming resentful that others aren’t supportive when the challenge is too big.
When I work with children I am aware of how they are emotionally “stuck” and inflexible in their capacity to express their needs. For some children, every ripple of feeling is experienced as a tidal wave, eliciting a response of terror or aggression. These children are intense; they need to become more flexible and learn to both modify the intensity of their needs and develop a wider range of expressing themselves. Other children deny, ignore or avoid when they are “stuck” and don’t know how to let their parents know they are struggling. Sometimes they appear to be overly self-reliant or in their own world. But in reality, they are rigid and fragile, “stuck” trying to manage by themselves alone with little capacity to move through “stuck” spots.
As parents, we have the challenge of looking into our own responses to our children as they tackle disappointments, frustrations, hurt and anger. Probably one of the biggest challenges we face is how we tolerate our child’s distress. What is most important is knowing how to respond to it: when to intervene to address distress, when to be present but passive supporting our children in managing their own struggles or when help is needed even when it is not requested. Ultimately, it is a partnership and each has to learn the steps to move through the dance of life allowing each partner to move forward and grow.
This type of knowing is not learned in a classroom. Parenting is an experiential journey. We make mistakes along the way. These mistakes however move us from our own “stuck” position. We too have to learn to face challenges, and those presented to us by our children are often the most intimate and intense. We are going to miss it sometimes and overreact other times. In fact, as we watched the tape, my daughter looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and teasingly said, “Why didn’t you help me?” After 17 years of experience together, we saw this capable little girl achieve her goal, then surprise herself by exceeding her goal and pulling the table too close to her and finally persist enough to figure out how to get it just right. When the video ended, my daughter was laughing at the little girl who didn’t know her own strength. She and I laughed in that moment together, both realizing that neither of us really was “stuck.”
Debra Kessler, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the care of children and their families. Dr. Kessler was awarded her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, graduating Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University. While working as an RN in Pediatric Intensive Care, she pursued a Masters Degree in Pediatrics from UCLA to further her skills in caring for children. After a career in nursing that included bedside nursing, Kessler chose to focus her attention on addressing the emotional needs of children and their families by obtaining a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at California School of Professional Psychology. Her post-doctorate work was done with Child Development Institute treating autistic and developmentally challenged preschool and young children and at Reiss-Davis Child Study center addressing the needs of school children, adolescents and their families. She has contributed to Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice (Lillas &Turnbull 2009). Dr. Kessler has an active practice in Montrose, California. In a family centered manner, she treats a range of developmental and emotional issues including adoption/attachment difficulties, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, autism/Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, learning challenges, regulatory difficulties and other issues that interfere with children reaching their potential.
To Learn More Visit drdebrakessler.com