Encouraging our children to leave their comfort zone
Why, from time to time, we need to allow our children to experience a level of discomfort
While most of us are hopefully unambivalent about the need to love, support and encourage our children, one of the issues that many parents seem to struggle with is how to allow them to experience a level of discomfort.
When this is explored in counselling, the struggle can often be seen to be related to the parent’s own childhood experiences. If you have a depressed mother for example, who despite her best efforts was emotionally unavailable and unattuned to your needs then you may want to offer your own child something very different. However, at times, are we in danger of over-meeting our children’s needs in a constant endeavour to make everything perfect and to show how much they are loved and held in mind, especially if this was not our own experience of being parented. Ultimately are our actions more about making ourselves feel better, or are they based on what is best for our children?
D W Winnicott, the well-loved British paediatrician and psychoanalyst was famous not only for his clinical work but for his BBC radio broadcasts made regularly from the 1940s-1960s. He talked to mothers directly about the challenges of being a parent. It was Winnicott that coined that well-used and eternally comforting phrase, the "good enough" mother. While he stressed the importance of being attuned to the baby’s needs, he encouraged mothers to trust their instincts and not to worry about striving for perfection.
He also emphasised the importance of children recognising that everyone had their limits, mothers and fathers included and that learning to deal with disappointment and frustration was an important lesson in life.
Winnicott often comes to mind when I am listening to a client’s very real distress when agonising over making the right, if not the most appealing parenting decision
How important is it to insist on a child doing something they are very resistant to, like, for example, signing up for a workshop over the summer holidays. There may be practical reasons, for example, the parent’s need to work over some of the break which would make this a necessary and pragmatic choice. But apart from practicalities, while the prospect of the unknown may bring up some anxiety in the child, they may also make a new friend, learn a new skill, or if nothing else prove they can meet the challenge of surviving this new experience; even if they didn’t enjoy every minute of it.
As difficult as it is, as parents we sometimes have to contain our own emotions and anxieties and be brave and loving enough to push our child out of their comfort zone in order to give them the opportunity to grow and become resilient.
Of course, at the same time, we want to protect our children. Atrocities like the terrorist attack in Manchester, was a heart-breaking realisation that along with online bullying and grooming, and the intense pressure of social media to be popular, beautiful and cool, our children are being targeted in other, even more, terrifying ways
As a therapist, I regularly meet clients who have struggled to deal with the aftermath of not getting good enough parenting, whether that was because they were packed off to boarding school, neglected or worse. But lately, I seem to have encountered a different kind of client, young adults who tell of apparently idyllic childhoods where parents were wonderfully attentive and devoted to protecting them from anything unpleasant by pre-empting any potentially unpleasant or challenging situations.
It seemed in some ways, that by being denied the opportunity to develop their own resources to endure difficulties, these individuals have been left feeling depleted and lacking in resources when it comes to dealing with everyday problems.
Ironically despite all of their parents’ well-intentioned efforts, they feel unhappy. Which brings us back to Winnicott, when it comes to parenting, good enough really is good enough and maybe much better for our children than striving for things to always be perfect.
This is one of the many parenting issues that can be explored in therapy.
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