To Nurture Your Children’s Problem-Solving Skills, Avoid Solving Their Problems

Claire Lerner, LCSW

Josie, 2 ½ years, wails when her mom, Tamisa, drops her off at preschool for day 3 at a new program. Previously, Josie had been in a family child care home with just 5 children. Tamisa feels sick to her stomach leaving Josie—the teachers have to peel her off Tamisa at drop-off. Even though the teachers tell Tamisa that this is very normal—it takes time for young children to get comfortable and feel safe in a new environment and Josie is calming more quickly and participating more each day—Tamisa is seriously considering just sending Josie back to the family child care home where she seemed so much more content.

It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is often to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. (One cry of frustration from my 3-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response—fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better—setting a pattern of him relying on me to be the fixer for years to come.) Often, the driving force behind solving our children’s problems is to protect them from feeling bad about themselves—like a failure; but we are actually doing the opposite, sending the message that they are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems (which, by the way, can lead to placing blame on their parents for everything that doesn’t go right for them for years to come.) It also teaches that failure is to be feared, or something to be ashamed of, when it is in fact a critical component of the learning process.

Take the example of Josie: with empathy and support from Josie’s teachers, Tamisa was able to manage her anxiety and give Josie more time to adapt to this new experience, Tamisa changed her goodbye routine from one that showed worry and lack of confidence in Josie’s ability to handle this change—hovering and communicating with her tone of voice and body language how concerned and upset she was—to an approach that was validating, sensitive and positive. She acknowledged that starting something new can be scary, and that of course they will miss each other—that’s only natural—but mom’s job is to go to her office and work and Josie’s job is to play and learn at this amazing school. Within two weeks Josie was running joyfully into the classroom—making friends and engaging in all sorts of new activities—and protesting when it was time to leave.

So, don’t fear those moments when your child is facing a challenge; see them as powerful opportunities to help your child see herself as a good problem-solver and build resilience. This means getting comfortable with your child’s discomfort—a natural part of mastering a new skill.  (Picture your child learning to ride a 2-wheeler; if you never let go, your child never experiences the teetering—which can feel a little scary and uncomfortable—that leads to figuring out how to eventually maintain her balance and the incredible sense of pride she experiences when she masters the challenge.) Acknowledge her frustration and discomfort while showing her that you believe she can solve the problem. See yourself as her coach: guide her to try different spaces to figure out where the puzzle piece fits; brainstorm with your 3-year-old what else she can use for a cape (after you’ve told her the table cloth is off limits); ask your 4-year-old and his friend for their ideas for how to share the T-Rex they both want. While it is no doubt easier to swoop in as the fixer, acting as a supportive coach will build your child’s self-confidence and help her learn to muscle through life’s challenges.

First Feelings: The Foundation of Healthy Development, Starting From Birth

Claire Lerner LCSW

It's so important for parents to help their child learn how to cope with their feelings. Learn how parents are their child's guide in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges, starting on day one.

It wasn’t that long ago that the conventional wisdom was that babies were pretty much blobs who didn’t think or feel much before they could speak in words around age 2. The idea that a 6-month-old could feel fear or anger, no less sadness and grief, was preposterous. But thanks to an explosion in research on infancy in the last 30 years, we now know that babies and toddlers are deeply feeling beings. Starting in the earliest months of life, well before they can use words to express themselves, babies have the capacity to experience peaks of joy, excitement, and elation. They also feel fear, grief, sadness, hopelessness, and anger—emotions that many adults understandably still find it hard to believe, or accept, that very young children can experience. Research has also shown that children’s ability to effectively manage their full range of emotions, also known as self-regulation—is one of the most important factors for success in school, work, and relationships into the long-term.

So a critical first step in helping your child learn to cope with her feelings is not to fear the feelings, but embrace them—all of them. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. When you help your child understand her feelings, she is better equipped to manage them effectively.

One major obstacle in doing this that I see quite often in my work with parents is that they are operating under the false assumption that having a happy child means he needs to be happy all the time (something I still have to keep reminding myself despite the fact that my children are in their 20s!) Muscling through difficult experiences, mastering struggles, coping with sadness and grief, builds strength and resilience, and is ultimately what brings children a sense of contentedness and well-being.

What can parents do?

Starting in the earliest months, tune in to babies’ cues—their sounds, facial expressions, and gestures—and respond sensitively, which lets babies know their feelings are recognized and important. This might mean stopping a tickling game with a 4-month-old when she arches her back and looks away, signaling she needs a break. Or taking a 9-month-old to the window to wave good-bye to Mom when she is sad to see her leave for work.

Label and help toddlers cope with feelings.

Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment can be overwhelming for young children. Naming these feelings is the first step in helping children learn to identify them, and it communicates to children that these feelings are normal. This might mean acknowledging an 18-month-old’s anger at having to leave the playground as you help him into the car seat; validating a 2-year-old’s frustration at his block tower falling again and again; or empathizing with a 3-year-old’s sadness that his grandparents are leaving after a long visit.

Don’t fear the feelings.

Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do—or don’t do—with them that can be problematic. So listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, you are sending the important message that feelings are valued and important. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time.

Avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings.

This is a natural reaction—we just want to make the bad feelings go away. Don’t be sad. You’ll see Joey another day. But feelings don’t go away, they need to be expressed one way or another. Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them. You are sad Joey has to leave. You love playing with him. Let’s go to the window to wave good-bye and make a plan to see him again soon. When feelings are minimized or ignored, they often get expressed through aggressive words and actions, or by turning them inward, which can ultimately make children anxious or depressed.

Teach tools for coping.

If your 18-month-old is angry that iPad time is over, guide her to stamp her feet as hard as she can or to draw how angry she is with a red crayon. Help a 2-year-old who is frustrated at not being able to get the ball into the basket brainstorm other ways to solve the problem. Take a 3-year-old who is fearful about starting a new school to visit the classroom beforehand—meet the teachers and play on the playground—so that the unfamiliar can become familiar.

The fact is that our children’s emotional reactions trigger our own emotional reactions, which can lead to a knee-jerk need to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our child distress. But it’s important that we manage our own feelings and avoid this temptation, as it creates a missed opportunity to help children learn strong coping skills. Instead, see these experiences as teachable moments to help your child learn to name and manage the emotions—positive and negative—that add depth and color to our lives. Show your child that a full, rich life means experiencing both the ups and the downs. Feelings are not “good” or “bad”—they just are. You are your child’s guide in in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges. And it starts on day one.Most important to keep in mind is that having that second child is a gift to your first-born; it is not something that should make you feel guilty. At the same time, it’s important to be aware that your first-born picks up on the changes he senses are on the horizon, which causes anxiety about the unknown—how his family will change and what that means for him. Being sensitive to this will help you provide the support and reassurance he needs to adapt to this major life transition.