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Surviving and Learning from Life's Hard Lessons

by Carolyn C. Waterbury-Tieman

Suffering is not a subject we like to think about. We go out of our way to avoid suffering. As parents we do everything in our power to protect our children from suffering. But suffering may be the result of anything from disappointment or embarrassment to the loss of a loved one.

Suffering comes in many forms and intensities, and can strike at any level of our existence -- physical, social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. Suffering from a single event may be experienced on multiple levels at the same time. And suffering is not limited by race, culture, socioeconomic status, or religious orientation. Suffering is a reality of being human. Thus our efforts to avoid or deny suffering often leave us and our children unprepared to deal with the inevitable.

Now you may be wondering if I am suggesting that we stop protecting our children, or even that we should intentionally inflict hardship. Absolutely not! What I am suggesting is that we give our children the tools they will need to deal with the suffering life itself will inflict upon them. Our children need to know not only how to survive life's hard lessons, but how to learn from them.

There are those who believe that the way to deal with suffering is to toughen themselves and their children against it. The process is comparable to the development of a callous. If you have ever had a callous then you know that it protects you from feeling the friction from a tool rubbing against your skin. However, it also makes it virtually impossible to feel a gentle caress. Therefore, the danger of becoming toughened or calloused against suffering is that you lose the ability to experience pleasure as well as pain. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson said, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".

So how do we prepare our children to deal with suffering? What tools will they need to help them emerge from pain and suffering as even stronger individuals? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Be reassuring, but be realistic. Avoid giving your children the impression that bad things will never happen or that bad things only happen to bad people. The fact is things, both good and bad, happen to everyone. Therefore, the issue is not whether or not bad things will happen or who they will happen to, but how well prepared you are to deal with them.

    When children express fears or concerns about things that might happen, avoid telling them that they won't happen so there is nothing to worry about. They rarely find this type of response satisfactory anyway. Instead, tell them what you are doing or would do if faced with that particular situation. For example, if your child is concerned about the house catching fire, show him/her the smoke detectors in your home, explain the precautions you take when cooking or using electrical appliances, and have an escape plan that every family member is familiar with.

    Let them know that there is nothing wrong with being afraid so long as you let your fear guide you to take appropriate precautions rather than letting it immobilize you from taking action at all. Convey your confidence in your ability, and theirs, to deal with whatever the situation as long as you stick together.

  2. Encourage your children to exercise all their muscles. By now, we all know the benefits of physical exercise. But what about emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual exercise? Our children will not be able to escape disappointment, embarrassment, sorrow, loss, pain, and doubt. The only way they will learn to manage these experiences as adults is if we allow them to practice during childhood.

    Whenever we see our children suffering, our first reaction is usually to try to remove it, fix it, make it go away. We tell them not to cry or be upset because their suffering makes us feel uncomfortable. We get anxious when they are unhappy because we think we are failing at our job. The fact is we cannot make our children happy, nor can we insure that they will be happy all the time.

    Our children must be allowed to flex their emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual muscles. They don't need us to take the suffering away. They need us to be with them in their suffering. For instance, our children can learn to comfort themselves through crying - a very important skill. Our job is not to make them cry or keep them from crying, but to hold them while they cry.

    When our children are disappointed or embarrassed, our job is not to take those feelings away. Our job is to respect their feelings, give them appropriate ways for expressing the feelings, and encourage them to explore what they might do differently in the future to prevent the same kind of thing from happening.

  3. Give them words and ways to express their feelings. We have no trouble expressing our more pleasant feelings - joy, love, happiness, excitement. But we tend to have tremendous difficulty expressing, or allowing others (especially those we love) to express more painful emotions. The result is that these feelings often get pushed down until they become anger. Unfortunately, many of us can accept anger more readily than sorrow.

    When a child has been hurt by the actions of a friend, (perhaps they have been teased, weren't picked to play on the friend's team at recess, or weren't invited to a birthday party), he/she needs to know that it is not O.K. to retaliate verbally or physically, or come home and scream at you or siblings, or kick the dog. This child needs to learn that while what they are feeling may seem like anger, what they are really feeling deep down is hurt, disappointed, left out, even sad.

    Then the child needs to be given ways to express these feelings, such as spending some quiet time drawing a picture that illustrates how they feel about the experience, writing about it in a journal, talking about the experience with a parent, or sharing their feelings in a respectful way with their friend either verbally or in a note, i.e. "When you didn't pick me for the team, I felt really left out. I was afraid I wasn't your friend anymore". Sometimes a combination of these is necessary to satisfactorily address the situation.

    Our children need us to give them the words to accurately identify their feelings and ways for them to appropriately express these feelings once named. They also need to see us practicing what we teach.

  4. Teach them what to ask. When confronted with suffering our first response is often to ask why -- why me, why now, why this? These questions have no answer and suggest that suffering is somehow a punishment. They reflect an attitude that life is something that just happens to us, about which we have no choice. A more informative line of questioning is, "What lesson can I learn from this? How can I use this experience to become a stronger, better person? How can I use this experience to help others?"

    These questions reflect an awareness that we have choices about how we will live the life we've been given. I am reminded of an expression printed on a bookmark my sister gave me -- "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade". We must teach our children how to make lemonade. I am not suggesting that this is easy. I am suggesting that it is beneficial.

  5. Teach them to look for the lessons in mistakes. Sometimes we are the source of our own suffering. Through our words or actions, (or our failure to speak or act), we create situations that cause pain to ourselves and/or others. In short, we make mistakes. However, we live in a culture that does not like mistakes. This is fairly obvious when you look at how anxious we are to find somebody else to blame when anything goes wrong. But you can't learn from mistakes if you are never allowed to make them or to admit you have made them.

    Children who are not held accountable for their mistakes, and are not given the opportunity to explore what their options were and how to make better decisions in the future, are likely to continue making mistakes. And unfortunately as they get older their mistakes tend to become more serious.

    One of my favorite scenes from The Lion King is the one where Rafiki is challenging Simba to learn from his suffering. Rafiki takes his stick and raps Simba over the head with it. Simba asks, "What was that for"? Rafiki replies, "It doesn't matter, it's in the past". "But it still hurts," Simba complains. "Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I look at it, you can either run from it or learn from it," Rafiki explains. The next time Rafiki swings his stick, Simba ducks.

Our children need the wisdom to know when to duck and the courage to stand strong when it's not possible to duck.

Carolyn C. Waterbury-Tieman is a parent educator and Certified Marriage and Family Therapist. Her practice is called Families Under Construction, Inc. She writes two monthly parenting columns -- Pastoral Parenting for a church newsletter and The Parents' Toolbox for a local parenting magazine. Copyright © 1996 Families Under Construction, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2003 Barbara Laufersweiler
Last updated September 27, 2003


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