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Why It’s Okay to Let Your Younger Child Struggle

By Amanda McLean, Ph.D., Supervising Psychologist and Assistant Training Director, Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health

Coping with your own child's emotional distress or pain is one of the most challenging tasks for parents. We are socialized as parents to provide our children with comfort, love and support. While this is an important component of parenting, we as parents also have a tendency or urge to "rescue" our children from situations that result in emotional pain or distress, despite the fact that the child is capable of managing the situation. 

Unfortunately, this tendency to "rescue" can lead to dependence on the parent for coping skills and can inhibit the child's development of independent problem-solving and and self-soothing skills.

Why Children Need to Struggle

For parents, the goal is to teach children how to overcome obstacles and cope with situations more independently. With younger children, obstacles may include:

  • How to deal with a difficult person
  • How to stay calm when they're being punished
  • How to perform independent tasks, such as cleaning their rooms, doing laundry and preparing meals

In other words, allowing your child to  experience challenges and complete activities independently will provide them with opportunities to be more self-sufficient, autonomous, and resilient.   When we struggle to inhibit the urge to rescue or coddle a child, he or she may learn to expect help when faced with any degree of distress.  By allowing your child to struggle and even to fail, he/she will learn to accept disappointment while effectively managing his/her emotions.

Below are several tips to for responding to your child's emotional distress:

  • Refrain from providing excessive reassurance. This may limit your child's opportunity to develop independent coping skills and he or she may feel dependent on you for managing distress in the future.
  • Refrain from reprimanding your child, even if he/she becomes distressed, whines, shows resistance or becomes disruptive. This will likely increase your child's anxiety.
  • DO praise, attend to, ​and encourage your child's efforts to appropriately cope or self-calm in response to a challenging or distressing situation. ​
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