How not to go to pieces when your child is struggling


“You are only as happy as your least happy child.”

That is what my mother – who raised six children – told me. She was talking about her adult children but at the time I was struggling to watch one of my kids struggle in school.

I am not talking about a rough day. Even our happiest children have downs. I am talking about a struggle with a learning disability, bullying, or physical or emotional issue. I have been down this path a few times, both as a single parent and together with a husband, and this is what I learned.

How not to go to pieces when your child is struggling

First, remember to breath. The flight attendants tell us to place our own air-mask on before our kid’s each time we fly because it goes against our natural instinct not to put our child first. As parents, we can’t take care of anyone if we fall apart.

We also have to keep it together because the children are watching. If they see us look worried, the message they receive is that the issue is worrisome. This works for and against us. On the one hand, sometimes we want them to know that we are taking a given issue seriously. On the other hand, we are setting an example: this is how adults react to stressful situations.

So take care of yourself. In my earliest days as a caregiver when I was in pure survival-mode, I went to a nutritionist. I asked her to tell me what to eat so I could stay on my feet. Later, as our stressful life moved into more of a routine, I found ways to treat myself. An episode of a well-written TV show. A long run. Coffee with a girlfriend. I tried to find something to treat myself every day, even if it was as small as a really good cookie. This is harder than it sounds. When we are caught up in taking care of our kids, we often forget to take care of ourselves too.

Build a team but understand their agendas

When a child is struggling, there is rarely a quick and easy answer. We need to recruit a team of supporters around our kid for both the short and long term. Teachers may change each year, but usually the school counselor and principal stay the same. In an ideal world, they are all super professional, warm and wise. Hopefully, they have seen this before, and have suggestions that might or might not work. For example, a school counselor suggested my dyslexic child take notes with a laptop instead of a notebook, and to get some of his books on tape. The laptop worked great – he could take notes much more quickly and neatly – so we kept that up. He hated the books on tape – so we stopped using them.

Of course, we can’t always pick the team, but we have to make the best of it. I forced myself to smile at the teacher who told me how surprised she was when the same child started scoring near-perfectly once she finally agreed to give him tests aloud. I tried to understand her perspective. She had a lot of other students and it is time-consuming to test my child separately. And alienating her was not going to help my kid who sat in her classroom nearly every day.

The good side of worrying

I have been told a number of times that nothing good comes from worrying. I disagree. Worrying about our kids is not bad when it leads to positive action. I don’t mean obsessing. But worry often leads to careful thought, brainstorming, and discussion with our friends, family or other supporters which in turn leads to new ideas or perspective that can be very helpful.

Your child is not your BFF

When your child is struggling, he needs support and friendship, but most of all he needs a parent. Your kid might have work to do, but you must captain the ship and navigate him in the right direction. While showing your child that his issue impacts you as well reminds him that you are human, there is a danger in over-sharing. Showing a child that his issue is hurting you, grows the issue unnecessarily and can make him feel worse.

Until things get better

You have done the work. You built an effective team, and you worried, analyzed, consulted, discussed and decided on a plan to help bring your child to a better place. He is still struggling but at least he is moving in the right direction. It can take months or years for the problem to resolve itself, or to minimize into something more manageable. But he is on the right road. So what do you do in the meantime? Just keep breathing…and pass the cookies, please.


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