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.
If you never experienced a situation similar to what your child is facing, you might be at a loss for words. "It's okay to be silent," says Roland Frauchiger, a Los Angeles-based family counselor. "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."
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. Allow your child to be emotionally dependent on you for as long as it takes her to regain composure and strength.
Explain That the Problem Is Normal
Your child may feel that no one ever dropped the ball in a championship football game like he did or felt as frustrated about getting a bad test score. Let your child know that other people have had similar problems. You might share an experience of your own similar to what he is going through.
Don't hesitate to show your child how some of the greatest leaders in the Bible?such as Moses, David and Paul?endured discouraging times when they felt frustrated and hopeless. Remind your child that it's human to make mistakes, but that God will give us the strength we need to move on (Phil. 4:13).
For the most part, a child in tears does not want to hear solutions to her problem. Don't offer advice until your child lets you know she's ready.
Don't Take Sides
My friend Kathy told me about her 8-year-old son's disappointment over not getting a major part in the school play. "Brandon had practiced the lines for the lead role for weeks," she related. "But rather than have tryouts, the teacher let the class vote on who should get each part. The most popular kids got the best parts, and Brandon ended up with a small role as an extra. He was crushed!
"I was upset with Brandon's classmates for not picking him and even madder at the teacher for letting popularity dictate parts for the play. But I didn't let Brandon know how I felt because I didn't want to aggravate the situation."
Kathy was wise not to take sides. If she had let her son know how unfair she thought his teacher and classmates had been, her criticism probably would have made it harder for him to get along with them. On the other hand, if Kathy would have defended the teacher's decision, Brandon would have thought she was not taking his concerns seriously.
If your child complains about a friend, coach or teacher, let him know you understand how he feels without attacking anyone. A response such as "You must be disappointed" lets your child know you accept how he feels. But a comment such as "I never liked that teacher in the first place" only leads to a gripe session.
Give Your Child Time
If several days go by and your child is still feeling down, that isn't necessarily reason to worry. Depending on the severity of the problem, it might take weeks or even months to get over.
"It takes time to work through the grief process," counsels Phyllis Neumann. "You may wish your child was her usual, cheerful self, but give her all the time she needs."
Of course, if your child's problem is starting to affect her performance at school, or she's no longer comforted by your listening, then it's time to seek the help of your pastor or a family counselor.
No parent knows what to say and how to act in every situation. Just remember that it's better to say little while putting an arm around your child's shoulders, than it is to say much while minimizing your child's pain. What matters most is that your child knows she doesn't have to face the difficult times alone.
Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer living in Texaas. She and her husband, Tom, have two sons, Danny and Brandon.
Copyright by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.