As parents, no matter how devoted and nurturing we may be, our children often struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a host of other challenges. Some of these disturbances are simply life experiences that they may regrettably have to experience. Our goal is to feel confident that they will overcome these obstacles and that our kids will even grow stronger for that success. To achieve that end, we need to provide them with the skills to be resilient, to bounce back from these assaults on their wellbeing and ultimately to thrive in their lives. We can provide them with the foundation to do so if we rethink our relationship with them. If our best intentions are not producing the expected results, we need to examine our operating beliefs. We may be playing from the wrong game plan.
We’re typically comfortable sharing our strengths, values, and ideals with our offspring. We assume that doing so will enable them to follow our guidance and propel them in the right direction. But the tendency for many parents is to openly share their positive attributes but withhold the personal history of their life’s struggles and upsets. We may say that they don’t want to burden our children with our problems – past or present. Or we simply don’t want to present ourselves in a way that is inconsistent with what we try to model. Ironically, when we share only the good with our children, we deprive them of a realistic expectation and preparation for what likely lies ahead.
When we divulge our challenges, we are actually sharing a valuable life lesson: life is difficult at times and struggle is normal. By not conveying our personal travails with our children, we actually set them up for personalizing their difficulties. When they encounter hardship and struggle – as they undoubtedly will – they may personalize their own weakness or failure, believing there’s something wrong with them. If they knew that we went or are going through these difficulties as well, we’d be providing them with anchoring reference points.
Normalizing Life’s Challenges
I have worked with many adolescents and young adults who have battled low self-esteem or anxiety. Having also assisted one or both of their parents, I came to appreciate that they too had confronted similar challenges. But they typically didn’t share this with their kids. So when the child feels down or anxious, they have no reference point. They can’t reflect that mom or dad battled with this and perhaps overcame it. Or, even if their parents didn’t get past their problem, the child may better understand the source of their own difficulty. Withholding these matters from our kids leaves them with the inevitable conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. This isolates them and exacerbates their struggle. Imagine if mom or dad shared that they too went through this and came out on the other side? It’s also beneficial to communicate even if their parents still confront these matters but are working on them and have confidence that they’ll overcome them.
When our young ones encounter anxiety, insecurity, or distress, it would actually be helpful for us to not simply be supportive, but to normalize their upset by sharing our own similar experiences. Actually, this sharing should occur as part of the normal repartee of child rearing. In other words, life is difficult and even mom or dad have had their encounter with difficulties. Life’s stressors are bad enough; we don’t need our kids thinking that it means there’s something wrong with them.
Acting Strong is Acting
I have come to appreciate that many people think that others are better off emotionally than they themselves are. They believe their difficulties are unique to them and other people are happier or better off. This is an excruciatingly damaging myth. We can help break this myth by sharing more honestly and fully. A proper preparation for life is to honestly address all that life brings forth. Acting strong is not strong; it is acting. Expressing and embracing your vulnerabilities is powerful and reveals genuine self-esteem. The paradox here is that our being vulnerable is actually strong, for it demonstrates that you have nothing to hide. Doing so, in turn, models for our children an intrinsic self-worth, as it removes a feeling of shame about their struggles.
Many times, as recently separated or divorced parents begin to date, they wonder whether to share that with their children. It is, of course, essential that we be sensitive to the trauma of divorce. Focusing on a healthy transition for the children should be paramount. But the time comes when you may choose to move forward with your life. Why hide this natural process from your children? I have often heard divorced parents state, “I wouldn’t expose my kids to my dating.” Making a life transition and eventually meeting other people for social circumstances is not akin to the West Nile Virus. More to the point, it might be helpful to children to understand that dating is a process and that your next partner doesn’t ordinarily just turn up magically on your doorstep. If that is what they are led to believe, they will likely internalize some negative self-esteem when they don’t fall in love with the first people that they date. We need to set realistic expectations for our offspring.
Sharing the fuller richness of our lives with our children rather than simply modeling the “proper” parent is of inestimable value to them. I had the great fortune of having a father who communicated with me the full measure of his life. Not just his successes and rewards, but his hopes, his struggles, his fears, and his disappointments. This degree of mentoring provided me with a resilience that I’m most thankful to have. I have in turn passed that on to my sons. We can provide our kids with this healthy foundation from which to engage life.
There is naturally a fine balance between appropriate sharing and not turning your children into your emotional partners. We never want to unduly burden them, but we do want to prepare them for life. Fine tuning that balance is the goal. The greatest gift we can give our children is to fully participate in their lives by opening up our own to them. Their resilience is in large part informed by sharing more of our own life with them.