Mother and son playing soccerRead the first two articles in this “Lessons from the Toddler Years” series: Happy Kids Aren’t Always Happy and Reframing “Misbehavior”.

Cherie is a social and athletic mom who highly values team sports. So she finds herself feeling anxious that her 3-year-old, Martin, watches hesitantly from the sidelines while a group of kids happily plays soccer on the playground. Cherie keeps pushing Martin to join in, but this only leads to greater resistance. She finally tries bribery, which results in Martin inching his way toward the soccer field and reluctantly running around the kids but not playing with them.

Caring for young children — really, children of any age — is an intensely emotional experience. We love our kids so deeply and want the best for them; so when faced with a situation that we worry will have a negative effect on our child, it triggers a reaction inside of us — a gut reaction that often leads to an unintended, negative outcome. The opposite of what we are aiming for. In the case of Martin, forcing him to play decreases, not increases, his desire join in. And it erodes his trust in Cherie to be sensitive to his feelings and needs.

It helps, first, to know your triggers. Anticipate what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive, and think in advance about how you want to handle them. This allows you to be responsive, not reactive.  Responsive parenting is as important for you as it is for your child because it prevents you from behaving in ways you may regret later.

For Cherie, a shift to responsive parenting resulted in her bringing a soccer ball to the playground and kicking it around with Martin, without any coaxing for him to join the other kids. She tuned in to his agenda, not hers. She also planned some opportunities to meet one or two other kids at the park on weekends to help Martin feel more comfortable with group play. At the same time, she followed Martin’s lead on the playground, showing that she values whatever most interests him (often the sandbox instead of running and climbing). Both Mom and Martin felt a great sense of relief and their time together was much more joyful.

Another common parenting trigger is seeing our children in emotional distress. It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle, and our knee-jerk response is to jump in and “fix” whatever is causing our children discomfort. When my son was three, one cry of frustration while working on a challenging puzzle activated my mom-to-the-rescue response, fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to take him out of his misery. It calmed him down in the moment, but it reinforced a pattern of relying on me to be the “fixer” in the future.

When we solve our children’s problems, we are missing opportunities to help foster the confidence that they can muscle through challenges and to support stronger coping skills. In making it all better, we unintentionally send the message that they are not capable of mastering the challenges they face and that only adults can solve their problems (which, by the way, can lead to placing blame on their parents as they grow!).

Take the example of Josie, age two and a half. It’s day three at a new preschool, and she wails when her mom, Tamisa, drops her off. Tamisa feels sick to her stomach leaving Josie; the teachers have to peel Josie off of her at drop-off. Even though the teachers tell Tamisa that this is very normal and that Josie is calming more quickly and participating more each day, Tamisa is so distressed by Josie’s response that she is seriously considering just sending Josie back to the previous family child care arrangement where she seemed so much more content — but where the only other children are infants and not good play or learning partners for her.

Fortunately, with empathy and support from the teachers, Tamisa is able to put her feelings aside and tune in to what Josie needs: the chance to adapt to a great program that will best support her overall healthy development. Being responsive, not reactive, Tamisa starts to change the tone of the drop-off routine: She says goodbye to Josie with positivity and confidence that Josie she will be fine, instead of hovering and communicating worry. Tamisa acknowledges that starting something new can be scary and that of course they will miss each other, but Mom’s job is to go to her office and work and Josie’s job is to play and learn at this great, safe school. Within two weeks Josie runs joyfully into the classroom, making friends, engaging in all sorts of new activities, and, now, protesting when it is time to leave.

So don’t fear those moments when your child is facing a challenge; try to see them as powerful learning opportunities. This means getting comfortable with your child’s discomfort, which is a critical part of mastering a new skill. While it is often easier to swoop in as the fixer, acting as a supportive coach will build your child’s self-confidence and help them learn to master life’s challenges. And that is one of the greatest gifts you can give as a parent.

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

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