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Opinion I How parents can turn their children’s stress into strength

As parents, we don’t need to step in to solve every difficult situation for our children, but simply support them through trying times

Make doing chores a habit for children. This lays down the foundation for independent and self-reliant personalities.
Make doing chores a habit for children. This lays down the foundation for independent and self-reliant personalities.

We tend to get uncomfortable with the idea of exposing our children to difficult emotions. This, obviously and rightly so, comes from our need to protect them. But in some way, this also stems from our inability to understand that working through difficult emotions can transform stress into life lessons. 

This doesn’t mean that we need to let children undergo needless stress. Rather, we need to help them through challenging situations to build muscle for what’s to come. We often find ourselves jumping to their rescue, solving problems on their behalf, and defending them. Parents pore through article after article on the internet about shielding their child from stress. The poignant truth in parenting today is that it has become difficult for us to even say the word “no" to our children, and for them to hear it. I have an honest and divergent argument here. Some stressful situations stimulate children, help them cope, build resilience and develop life skills. Our role is significant in providing support through trying times. 

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

I have listed a few suggestions—challenges, if I may say so—, for turning our kids into robust survivors: 

Problem-solving: Our children are faced with myriad issues on a daily basis—submission of homework on time, but there are internet issues at home. Or even, “I have a match tomorrow and my socks have holes in them". Typically, parents rush in to make calls to internet service providers or to get new socks from the market, with spares for the entire team. Or they leave everything aside to darn the sock even before the children can articulate their thoughts on how these problems can be solved. Problem-solving is a key cognitive skill that children will need as they face various life situations. We need to raise our children as confident beings, with faith in themselves and the first step towards it to let them think about how to approach a problem. 

Boredom: One of the most common questions I have been getting asked in webinars of late is how to keep my child constructively busy. Mothers empathise more with boredom and social isolation than with confusion and anxiety. I do believe this is a fair question, given the energy kids have with nothing much to do during the ongoing pandemic. By allowing small bytes of boredom, we can encourage contemplation and spur creativity. 

There was an early, much-cited study by James Danckert, a cognitive neuroscientist and an expert on the psychology of boredom, which gave participants abundant time to complete problem-solving and word-association exercises. Participants would give far more inventive answers than usual to fend off boredom. A British study then took these findings, adding a creative challenge as well, which included coming up with alternative uses for a household object. One group of subjects took up the boring activity first, while others went straight to the creative task. Those who were exposed to boredom first were more prolific in their responses. 

I have experienced this personally, when as a child I would observe, listen and absorb more while getting bored (on a regular basis). Our kids don’t do that because they have a gadget handed to them when bored, or a playmate is organised immediately. But as with everything else, too much of everything is bad news. Don’t overdo the boredom. Chronic boredom does damage the sense of self and cause addictions. 

Chores: As a child, I was entrusted with a fair number of small chores—switching off fans and lights when we left the room, putting my plate in the kitchen, packing the bag for school the next day and the weekly cleaning of my closet. The more I complained, the more I would be made to do them. Chores are small responsibilities we give our children, indicating our trust in them to be able to pitch in. The advantages of making this an early habit are innumerable: a sense of humility, a lack of entitlement, empathy with our helpers, taking responsibility for a task from start to finish, can lay down the foundation for independent and self-reliant personalities. 

Disagreements: Allow me to clarify. I do not encourage family arguments in front of kids. I am open, however, to kids disagreeing with us. It gives us a chance to help them be self-confident thinkers, who can speak their mind and “disagree without being disagreeable". I wish to suggest an open space for communicating feelings, where they get accepted and understood. 

To avoid disagreements, we often use power play to get things done. Our usual responses to disagreements are “don’t argue", “don’t teach me" or simply “do it, as I said so." Listening to the child’s point of view and accepting their feelings doesn’t mean agreeing with them. By listening to them we make them feel valued. Allowing them to express disapproval makes them feel understood, so the child doesn’t have to get louder, more animated or down on the floor to explain his or her point of view. 

Decision-making: Personally, I consider “volition" one of the biggest priorities of honest, effective parenting. I allow my children choices and the freedom to make decisions. It may cost me time, strained vocal chords, some cortisol and incessant hair fall, but it lays the foundation for determination, motivation and success. “Life is the sum of all your choices," said Albert Camus. And indeed, taking responsibility for our choices is a valuable lesson in cause and effect.

I remember my son once picking up a flavour from the ice cream parlour and not liking it. As I empathised with him, he said to me, “I made a poor choice. Now I know which one is my least favourite flavour." I agree that not all life lessons are that simple and often come with heartache and pain. But when that happens, they need to find us standing by them to help cope with the disappointment. Risk is an intrinsic part of every decision. And it is our job to communicate this to them, to help cope with failure, focus on learning and starting over! These decisions will have to made by them someday, and don't leave this off for the day that they leave the nest.

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