Kids might not have to face job layoffs, a shrinking checkbook, over-demanding bosses, ailing health or other adult-sized problems, but the negative circumstances they encounter can be just as upsetting.
Maybe it’s been three days since Buster ran away and your son’s in tears because no one has responded to any of your "Lost Dog" fliers. Your daughter might be mortified because she forgot her lines during the school play. Perhaps your child got booed during the soccer game, was teased by the school bully, did poorly on a test or suffered a back-stabbing by an up-until-now good friend. As a result, your child comes home, sobbing hysterically or sullen and mad.
You know you need to say something, but what?
Should you try to lighten things up or should you help him talk about the ordeal? Should you downplay what happened or try to solve the problem for your child? You might stutter, stick your foot in your mouth or open your mouth to speak and have no words come out.
"Oftentimes parents are uncomfortable addressing and even acknowledging their children’s negative feelings and emotions. They want to protect their children. They don’t want to see them suffer," says Karen Krefman, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University.
According to Krefman, parents will try to minimize the situation. They might say, "Now, now, no need to worry." Or, they might avoid talking about the situation altogether and pretend nothing’s wrong. Krefman says neither of these are effective responses.
"Your children need to be able to talk about what’s bothering them," she says. "They need to know you understand what they’re going through."
Although hard and fast rules are hard to come by, you can assess the situations your kids are facing and respond thoughtfully, sincerely and appropriately. Here are some suggestions for comforting a hurting child.
Let your child get it out
One mistake is to not allow your child to fully explain what is troubling her. Let your child talk out the problem. If you change the subject, make a joke or come up with reasons why the situation isn’t that big of a deal, you send the message that you don’t want to hear your child’s problems and that it’s not OK to express sadness. Responses such as "It’s nothing to get upset about," "Look on the bright side," "It can’t be that bad" and "Don’t worry so much" place a truckload of guilt on the child.
"Parents can get so panicky about not knowing what to do or say that they unintentionally shut out the suffering child to make themselves feel more comfortable," says Sandra Burkhardt, a child psychologist in Orland Park and psychology professor at Xavier University. "Rather than say, ‘Don’t cry; it will be OK,’ your child needs to be told, ‘Go ahead and cry.’ "
Calmly accept your child’s situation for what it is and don’t pretend things are better than they are. Responses such as "I’m sorry to hear the bad news," "You’ve been through a lot" and "That sounds like a tough situation" communicate genuine concern and acceptance.
Listen to your child—with interest, patience, openness and caring. Avoid any urge to judge, blame, lecture or tell your child what she should have done instead.
Show your child you’re interested in what she’s telling you by maintaining eye contact, nodding occasionally and spurring her on with expressions such as "Tell me more about it" and "I see." Don’t try to finish your child’s sentences. Let your child do the talking. You may be surprised to find what is actually troubling him.
Express your understanding
Once your child is finished telling his story, comment briefly on the feelings you heard your child express. For example, you might say something like: "I can understand why you would feel that way" or "No wonder you felt upset when they wouldn’t let you in the game" or "That must have felt unfair to you." Doing this shows that you understand what your child felt, why he felt that way and that you care.
Try to see things from your child’s perspective.
"Feeling understood and listened to helps your child feel connected to you, and that is especially important in times of stress," says Deerfield-based clinical psychologist Mary Halpin.
In some cases, children feel like they’re the only ones who have ever had to deal with the situation and that no one will understand. Let your child know that other people have had similar problems. You might share an experience of your own that is similar to what he is going through. Just knowing that others have been in similar circumstances—and made it through OK—can be very encouraging.
Of course you may have never experienced a similar situation and be at a loss for words. "It’s OK to be silent," Halpin says. "What’s most important is that you be there for your child. Be honest with her. Tell her you don’t know what to say but you still want to be there. Sometimes the simple presence of a parent is all that is needed to erase feelings of anxiety in children."
Respect your child’s need for space
Sometimes children don’t feel like talking about what’s bothering them. It’s a good idea to respect that, give your child space and still make it clear that you’ll be there when he does feel like opening up. "Children need to be able to decide for themselves when they’re ready to talk," Krefman says. "Sometimes kids need some time to think things through first."
Your child may still want you by her side, though. "Even when children don’t feel like talking, they usually don’t want their parents to leave them alone," Burkhardt says. "A lot of times you can help your children feel better just by keeping them company and spending time together."
Establish physical contact
There may be nothing more comforting to a hurting child than the warmth of her parent’s embrace. Don’t hesitate to put your arms around her shoulders, give a hug or hold your child on your lap. Go ahead and cradle your child in your arms just as you did when she was an infant.
"Considering our culture’s emphasis on independence and self-reliance, we need to reassure our children that they shouldn’t feel guilty when they need to be babied for a bit," Burkhardt says.
Allow your child to be emotionally dependent on you for as long as it takes her to regain composure and strength.
Offer advice when your child is ready
For the most part, a tearful child does not want to hear a dozen solutions to his problem. Halpin says giving unsolicited advice is another way we cut off communication: "You tell yourself, ‘If I can distract my child by thinking of some brilliant advice, she’ll stop crying.’ "
Be careful to not "take over" the solutions stage, Krefman says. She suggests you start by asking your child something like "Did you do anything to try to make things better?" "Is there something else you’d want to do about that?" or "How do you think you might want to handle the situation?"
If you think your child handled the situation well, Krefman says to praise the efforts.
If your child didn’t handle the situation very well or doesn’t know what to do next, it’s OK to offer advice. You could say, "I’ve got a suggestion. Are you open to that?" or "This is what I’m thinking. Tell me if you think this will work." In effect you are asking your child’s permission to move forward with your advice.
Krefman says it’s best if you can brainstorm ideas together. "You want your child to be actively involved in the solution stage. This will help your child develop problem-solving skills, and build confidence."
Give your child time
If several days go by and your child is still down, that isn’t necessarily reason to worry. Depending on the severity of the problem, it might take weeks or even months for your child to fully get over it.
"It takes time to work through the grief process," says Krefman. "Try to understand what your child is going through. You may wish she was her usual, cheerful self, but you shouldn’t expect her to cover up her sadness just so you can feel more comfortable. Give your child all the time she needs."
Of course, limits are understandable and necessary. If your child’s troubles are getting worse, are starting to affect his performance at school or if he’s no longer comforted by your listening to him, these are signs indicating depression or anxiety. That’s when you need to seek the help of a child psychologist, school counselor or other professional.
No one should expect you to know what to say or how to act in every situation. Remind yourself that you’re better off saying something to your child rather than shutting her out because you don’t know what to say. What matters most is that your child knows she doesn’t have to face difficult times alone.
Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer based in Chicago specializing in family and health.