Childhood is full of frustrating moments. Nature has designed life in such a way as to guarantee that children will have their wishes denied many times a day. Kids are small, physically disadvantaged, in need of support that isn’t always available, and desirous of all sorts of things that their caretakers determine aren’t good for them.
As loving parents, we hate it when our children cry, and we’ll jump through hoops to keep their tears at bay. We buy them the toys they can’t live without, force their big sisters to play Barbies with them, or let them stay up late even though we know they’ll be tired the next day.
But when we intervene every time our children become frustrated — believing we’re doing so out of love and care — we prevent them from learning the lesson of adaptation. As a result, when they experience something upsetting later in life, they will either demand that circumstances bend to their will or they will become aggressive. They will become adults who cannot cope when things don’t conform to their liking, like people who demand recompense when they’re disappointed or who have to numb themselves with substances or distractions in order to handle life’s more difficult moments.
We justify our manipulations of people, events and rules on our children’s behalf in the false belief that when we eliminate their frustrations, we’re demonstrating our love. But the truth is, when we prevent children from experiencing frustration, we’re keeping them from developing the vital life skill of learning to adapt, which is an ability they’ll need throughout their adult lives.
Helping kids cry
Of course I’m not recommending that parents coldly admonish their children to “deal with it” when they’re upset. Rather, adults need to help frustrated children realize their feelings of sadness or frustration and access their tears. It is only then that they become able to move on — to adapt.
When we prime children’s tears, softening our voice and acknowledging how hurt they’re feeling because their big sister said “I don’t want to play with you,” we help their disappointment find expression and release. Often it’s only when we find our tears that we can accept and carry on. That’s why one of the greatest gifts we can give children is the ability to find their tears when they’re frustrated. In fact, tears actually release stress hormones and toxins; as usual, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.
Once the tears come, children are soon off and running, looking for something or someone else to play with — but this time with one more successful adaptation under their belts. They have discovered that while life may not always unfold to their liking, they can adapt to it and find their way back to joy.