Comfort Zone

What to do - and not do - when your child's upset

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.' "

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