How to Help a Child Who is Hurting

By Robyn Cruze

When our children struggle with their emotions, it's natural to want to take away the pain they feel and make it go away. This does not save them. It robs them of the powerful experience of learning how to soothe themselves.

When our children struggle with their emotions, it’s natural to want to take away the pain they feel and make it go away. Personally, I think I even project my own childhood onto my children as I run to save them.

What I realize now, however, is that this does not save them. It robs them of the powerful experience of learning how to soothe themselves.

Here’s a recent example: as daughter number one put her shoes on for school, she began to tell me about a rumor she heard the day before — a girl at school was calling her names. Her feelings were tender because the girl had been her friend at the end of fourth grade, but now, entering fifth, she decided that my daughter was not her friend anymore.

Daughter number one was missing her friend now, and as her mom, I wanted to make her feel better.

I thought to myself, It’s my job to make her feel better. For the love of God, IT’S MY JOB!  

Anyone with me on this?

My mind began to work hard to find a solution to my daughter’s own problem. In my own personal, flawed need to protect my child (or let’s face it, myself) from feeling discomfort, I started in:

  • First, I reeled off the “facts” about how the girl wasn’t the greatest friend to her in the first place.
  • I followed it up with a “suggestion” that she should start exploring why she would want to be friends with someone who didn’t treat her well. I know, I know… this was not the best subtle parenting moment in my life. 
  • Basically, I somewhat stunted her ability to come to her own conclusions on the matter.

Well, daughter number one got angry with me. She told me I was mean and that I was “judgy.”

Judgy, I thought, she called me judgy.

Yep, I admit it. She was right. In my attempt to help (save) my daughter, I became “judgy.”

Later that day, I got to thinking about how this experience in my own household tied into parents of children with eating disorders. It is common that family members find it hard to sit back and watch their loved ones struggle.

Of course, we don’t want our children to hurt; we think it is our job to help (save) them. Watching them struggle is like watching a car wreck that we believe we can prevent. So, it led me to wonder how to help our children in situations like this, whether a minor social conflict or a major illness like an eating disorder.

Maybe it’s not about doing nothing, but rather doing something a little differently. Maybe it’s about listening more, seeing our children as individuals, and taking the cue from them regarding when it is time to step in. Maybe it’s more about holding the space for them to heal and maybe feeling some of our own discomfort along with them.

My friend and colleague Jen Lombardi, Marriage and Family therapist and ERC National Recovery Advocate, shares her experience of how to handle this as a parent:

“When I work with families, I have a front row seat to this scene. I watch a child struggle to share something so painful, often due to it being shameful. And in a split second, it washes over the parent – it’s only natural to want to make it all go away as quickly as possible. That’s parental instinct. I always work to encourage the child to keep talking, get it all out, and ask the parent to take it all in. That way neither of them are alone – either reeling directly from the experience, or feeling traumatized by hearing it for the first time.”

In my own life, I know this works. As daughter number one was getting into the car after our episode, I asked her if it would help if I didn’t act “judgy” but instead just listened. She said yes. Listening without judgment would allow daughter number one to know that she is not alone.

Jen Lombardi agrees:

“When we’ve been on the receiving end of something painful, in hindsight, we understand that the best thing anyone could do for us in that difficult moment is to listen, validate and say ‘me, too.’ We know that any suggestions for coping or strategies for navigating it will be better heard when we get our emotional and verbal ‘junk’ out. But something happens as a parent (loved one) when we witness this: our anger and sadness for the person eclipses our ability to be with the person we love. The truth is that we do best when we can show empathy – a willingness to lean in and not pull away from pain.”

Isn’t this so powerful and challenging at the same time?

I am learning that keeping the communication channels open is the best support we can provide to our children. I want to be there to hold the space for my daughters, whatever they are going through. That is such a privilege. Indeed, there is a time to intervene, and a time not to. Knowing what to do in each situation where my child is hurting is something is something I work on daily.

How do you navigate the murky waters of your child’s recovery?

child & adolescent
robyn cruze
Written by

Robyn Cruze

Internationally-recognized author and speaker, Robyn Cruze published Making Peace with Your Plate (Central Recovery Press) with Espra Andrus, LCSW, which will enter its second edition in February…

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