That’s What Mom’s Do – Protect Their Kids Feelings…Or Is It?

A parent in the town in which I live posted on Facebook her sadness over an incident that happened the previous night involving her son. The post was shared on the Facebook group for those living in our community.

The “Neighbors Unite” page offers residents a forum through which to share town related information such as bear sightings and road closures along with a variety of town related questions and concerns. Occasionally, the forum is used as a place to share personal stories and/or vent annoyances.

Happy young adults
Well-meaning parents can have young adults who struggle. (Pexels Helena Lopes)

Should a parent lie to spare their teen’s feelings?

This particular parent was deeply upset that her son – a high school freshman, had been lied to by his friends who told him they were not going out but in actuality were. As a result her son was home alone playing video games.

That stinks. Seeing your child shunned hurts. I get it.

But when she wrote that “I lied to him to save his feelings…it’s what moms do.” I wanted to cry out, “No! Don’t save his feelings! Let him hurt. It’s a bump. He will recover.”

As the parent of three adult children, I see in hindsight how much of my efforts to protect my kids’ feelings when they were younger actually caused more harm than good. When we send a message that our kids need to be protected from their pain we are also sending a message that we don’t think they can manage it on their own. If that message is internalized, when it’s time to flee the nest, they are at risk of being crippled by insecurity.

The responses to the post were swift and numerous, over 120 people chimed in, with the vast majority offering words of support, empathy, kindness, and stories of similar wounds. One gentleman however, wrote the following:

“This is all part of life and growing up. Welcome to unfair. Get over it.”

While not a fan of the strident tone, I have to admit the message resonated; it wouldn’t have when my kids were younger, but it does now. In the past I too may have tried to ease the pain. Today though, while letting my kid know I was there if needed, I would reassure him that I believed he could deal with the situation on his own or, alternatively I might acknowledge that indeed it sucks, then ask him how he planned to handle it.

By smoothing the path for my teens, I exacerbated the situation.

While I don’t believe my efforts to protect my children from pain when they were younger necessarily caused the deep anxiety some of them have struggled with as teens and young adults, generalized anxiety goes back generations in our family and they are growing up in anxious times, I nonetheless do not think my efforts eased the stress. In some instances I have no doubt that I probably exacerbated the problem.

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. Many will find themselves needing extensive therapeutic care. Educational consultants, therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness therapies are quite busy these days.

While the reasons kids suffer such ills are complex ranging from genetic disposition to environmental factors to a lot of unknowns, there is a reason authors such as Krissy Pozatek (Brave Parenting) and Jessica Lahey (The Gift of Failure) have become staples among clinicians treating kids who are stuck.

Gift of failure

In her seminal book, The Gift of Failure, Lahey writes:

Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of the way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lesson of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of this world.

Author, Pozatek, considered a gift by many parents in the adolescent/young adult therapeutic community, writes simply: “When you stop treating your child as fragile, your child will become less fragile.”

Through my children and my work, I met a diverse and compassionate mix of parents and caregivers who, while working to help their kids move forward, have bravely and vulnerably reflected on how their efforts to shield their kids from emotional pain and stress may have in actuality hindered them. For many, including myself, the “aha” moment that our efforts to protect might have in actuality been counterproductive, came when we needed to seek help because we were faced with children who were struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression , substance abuse or “bad behaviors.”

Ironically, as some parents I know have discovered, when a child is repeatedly protected from experiencing a full range of emotions such as grief, anger, betrayal and fear, the feelings may surface and manifest during the hormonally fueled teenage years in the form of antisocial or malevolent behaviors such as cruelty towards their peers.

With this in mind, it was disheartening to see a few commenters on the post lay the blame squarely on the parents of the offending kids with criticisms such as, ”Kids mirror the behavior of their parents.” Or, “This is a reflection of bad parenting.”

When you get to know – really know the personal stories of diverse groups of parents, it becomes apparent that kind, well-meaning and compassionate parents sometimes have kids who struggle with problematic emotions and behaviors; and uninvolved and dysfunctional parents sometimes have incredibly kind and compassionate kids. And if and when a kid’s behavior is a mirror of their parents as occasionally is the case, judgement will never offer such parents a door through which to find new ways of being.

I, like the mom in the post, used to believe that “that is what moms do.” They “protect their kid’s feelings.” I also use to believe, that “good parenting” would automatically produce happy, healthy kids.

Experience and renewed perspective have changed all that.

What You Might Also Want to Read: 

Grown and Flown: The Book

I Hope I Can Help My Kids Learn What’s Truly Important in Life

Suzy DeYoung started her career in television working as a production assistant and segment producer for a variety of programs including, Ryan’s Hope, Good Morning America and Live: Regis & Kathie Lee. Suzy later went on to earn a MSEdu in Parent and Child Development from Bank Street College of Education in New York. After moving to Newtown, CT with her family and working as an educator, Suzy became involved in the recovery efforts put in place following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings, working as a Care Coordinator for the government funded, Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team. More recently,Suzy worked with The Avielle Foundation, a non-profit established in honor of six-year-old Avielle Rose Richman who lost her life in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings. Suzy worked as co-host and producer of the foundation’s Brainstorm Experience Speaker Series, a monthly speaker series focused on mental health and featuring such speakers as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Brene Brown, Andrew Soloman and Jessica Lahey. Suzy’s first book, “A Gift of Hindsight: Reflections on Successes, Failures, and Lessons Learned from Seasoned Parents and Parenting Experts,” was published in 2018. Suzy’s website and Facebook page, Trauma Informed Parent, offers information and resources to parents of children who have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences. Suzy is the parent of three children ages 25, 22 and 20.

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