Social media and consumer marketing tells us that if we do this, take that, wear this, and buy that, we will be happy. Similarly, rewards and punishments are the way we control our kids. This method raises our children to focus externally. They often don’t know how to handle themselves without those external controls.
In order to stay calm, do our best work, and have the greatest influence on those around us, we must stop trying to control others. Nobody likes a dictator. Children are no exception. In working with parents all over the world, I find that nothing is harder for parents to do than let go of control.
When tragedy strikes, we try to protect our children from worry and fear. When my daughter was four years old she was afraid of fire. One Sunday, the house next door burned to the ground. My first instinct was to close the door of the room she was in to insure she did not see the fire. Immediately, I realized the futility, so I carried her to the window to watch. She wanted to get as close as I would allow. She was mesmerized and asked lots of questions over days and months that I answered honestly. The experience helped her through and over her fear, to know it was not the end of the world. This experience helped her feel less afraid.
Often our experience of tragedy comes from how those around us deal with it. My father died suddenly in the middle of the night when I was eleven years old. With the best intentions, my uncle hushed my crying with, “Now, now, Bonnie, none of that.” My mother remained stoic without a tear. She later had a nervous breakdown, and I learned the consequences of stuffing one’s feelings about tragedy. This is not the way I chose to bring up my own children.
For children, tragedy is personal – losing a parent, friend, pet. A terrorist attack or mass deaths will not hit home unless they fear it will happen to them. Imagined tragedy can be just as strong – a parent’s death, thunderstorms, a monster attack, a bad guy getting in the house. Whatever it is, children do better when they come face to face with the fear, have a parent’s calm support and understanding, and get through it – sometimes years later. The more calm and centered we are, the more we understand that we have no control of our children’s futures, fears, and experiences. The more we understand our role as their guides along their own journeys, the more we can allow them experiences rich with feeling, sometimes unpleasant, to be better prepared for the hard world.
Letting go means trusting that our children are strong, capable and resilient. Resilience comes from experiencing all that we have inside us and getting to the other side of big intense feelings – not by denial, belittling, toughening up, or keeping secrets. Our children are capable of understanding truth. They don’t need details they cannot yet understand to feel assured by a parent’s willingness to tell the truth.
In times of tragedy or stress, here’s how you can be the best guide for your child:
Trust your child
Trusting a child’s capabilities is hard for a parent who was not trusted as a child — a child who was told to listen to someone else, who was ruled by the carrot or the stick, or who was sheltered from the knocks of life. We lack trust in our children to the degree we worry and fear for their safety and healthy development and to the degree we fear lack of control over them.
Trust is like a constant flow of antioxidants into your children’s veins. Trust that:
- Your child knows right from wrong
- Expression of his feelings will never hurt anyone (but bottled up emotions can)
- He can make good decisions and wants to succeed
- Sometimes he knows better than you what is right for him
- He will make mistakes, sometimes big ones, which he will learn from (especially when he has your trust that it was indeed a mistake)
Be honest with your children. Don’t try to hide or deny what may have influenced their feelings. Keep TV news off in front of young children but do not dismiss or belittle anything they ask or express. Fears will only expand when you dismiss a worried child with, “There’s nothing to worry about.” When your child asks questions or exhibits concerning behavior at a time of stress in the world or in your family, talking about it with facts and assurances will help.
Grow and develop along with your children
Influence and limits will remain strong when you give your children more and more responsibilities and freedom to make their own choices and direct their own lives. This requires connection, trust, and guidance.
Letting go of control and parenting with acceptance, understanding, support, and guidance keeps your influence primary. Control turns them away to find authority among their peers. When you learn to let go, your influence and values will always be their rock when life throws the unexpected their way.