FALLING IS A PROCESS. SO IS GETTING BACK UP.
The mom of a client recently reached out to me for help with her child who was “horizontal and not talking to anyone” after being passed over for a job. Ordinarily my reaction would be to refer them to a therapist, but I happen to know this child and her family, and had a feeling the situation was not as grave as she made it sound. I suspected that her child’s behavior was more a response to embarrassment rather than the lack of an offer, as I see so often in my practice, and she just wanted to hide.
This was an interview her dad had orchestrated through his connections. He did all the legwork to get her there, and his expectation was that she would skate through the interviews and win the job. So when HR called to inform her that they were “going with another candidate,” the response of both parents was swift and firm. Her marching orders were to “call them back and ask them what you did wrong.” The parents could not conceal their frustration, mumbling, “this is ridiculous” under their breath.
Then, without skipping a beat, the mom handed her daughter a whole list of other jobs she had found for her online, and then suggested that she “hire a head hunter to help her land one of them.”
Every single move in those moments did nothing but exacerbate the embarrassment her child was feeling, and leave her wanting just curl up in a ball. The child needed to process this disappointment in her own way but was not being given the chance to do so. And it was more than she could handle right then.
As parents, most of us behave as though it is our duty to “fix” everything for our children. When they fall we scoop them up, shush them softly when they cry, and beat up whatever made them fall in the first place. We get angry for them and with them. We become ninjas when anyone dares to hurt them. Over and over we take away their chance to figure out how to get up, dust off, and move on, whether it’s with a bleeding knee or a bruised ego.
We do that so instinctively that as a result, we’ve created an entire generation of kids who struggle with disappointment, and do not know how to handle failure or adversity. They are left feeling like “there is something WRONG with me, or else I am a failure.”
And then they do the only thing they know how to do – they shut down. And we worry more. We label their behavior (she is “depressed”) and seek confirmation of our armchair diagnosis from a therapist, who more often than not will agree (and suggest some kind of medication for it). So now our label convinces the child that “there IS something wrong with them,” which means they are disappointing us again and the cycle continues.
This pattern of overreaching parenting is becoming the new normal within schools as well. Parents’ knee jerk reaction to any kind of consequences bestowed on their child by faculty or administrators can often be construed as a veiled threat of “don’t you dare.” In the end this kind of response from parents can completely undermine a child’s ability to accept responsibility for their own actions. And so when they are called out on something in life, these children absorb it as criticism, don’t know how to handle it, and down they go again.
The same thing goes for the workplace, where constructive criticism can completely upend someone who has not learned how to accept responsibility for their actions. This often leads to a pattern of job-hopping because what causes them to leave these jobs in the first place is always the fault of “somebody else”.
With all our good intentions, we have inadvertently set pretty high standards for these kids by “fixing” every little conflict for them with a perfect outcome. As a result, they can’t figure out how to maintain that level of perfection in their life on their own. How could they?
I hear repeatedly from these clients that they will never “be as successful”, or “be able to live in a way they were accustomed to growing up”, or “do anything great for that matter because they are such a screw-up”. Why?
Because we took away their chances to fail and figure things out on their own. We didn’t allow them to practice falling and getting up again when they were younger and it didn’t hurt so much. Their failure would break us, imagine that. So now they are horizontal and not talking to anyone because of disappointment.
The message here is clear dear parents.
If we want these children to grow up as we continue to expect them to, we have to break this pattern.
We need to stop advising them as though we are the only ones who know what to do. We need to let things unfold for them without attempting to control the outcome, even if they might fail. We need to allow them to take a stab at answers for themselves, encouraging them, not criticizing them. We need to give them the space to experience disappointment and emotions including sadness so they can process it and come out of it stronger.
Mostly we need to let them grow…gracefully, courageously, and with a sense of who they are, with or without us. It’s as much for our own good as it is theirs, I promise you.
Noticing your own reactions and patterns is a good start to breaking this cycle. Take a deep breath before you react to situations. Be the observer. Notice what might be coming up for you and waking the ninja within. Ponder that for a few minutes so your child has the chance to process her own emotions. We all know that “the hardest part of letting them grow is letting them go.”
Change just one thing about your approach and you are already helping your child become the confident independent person they deserve to be.