I still remember my third-grade track meet. I tripped and fell during the 50-meter dash, getting jeers from my classmates and coming in last place. My mom was waiting for me when I got home from school, and I burst into tears the moment I saw her. She couldn't undo what had happened, but her quiet listening told me I wasn't suffering alone.
Facing difficulties is part of growing up. When a child loses a pet, fights with a friend or faces ridicule, parents have the opportunity to become a safe harbor. Yet that doesn't always come naturally. When your child is in tears, should you try to lighten things up, or should you help him talk about the ordeal? Should you downplay what happened, or should you offer solutions?
Here are proven 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. This will allow her to begin the healing process.
If you change the subject, make a joke or come up with reasons why the situation isn't that big a deal, you send the message that it's not okay to express sadness. Responses such as "It's nothing to get upset about," "It can't be that bad" or "Don't worry so much" add guilt to the suffering.
"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 Phyllis Neumann, a family counselor in Petaluma, California. "Rather than say, 'Don't cry; it will be okay,' your child needs to be told, 'Go ahead and cry.' "
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. Remember to see things from your child's perspective. For example, you might say, "I know you are disappointed because you worked so hard and still did not make the softball team."
In most cases, a problem shared is a problem halved. One of the most important things you can do for your hurting child is to listen. Encourage him to talk about what is bothering him and help carry some of his burden (Gal. 6:2).
Show your child you're interested by maintaining eye contact, nodding occasionally and spurring him on with expressions such as "Uh-huh" and "I see." Don't try to finish his sentences; let your child do the talking. You may be surprised by what is actually troubling him.