When Not To Reassure Your Child And What To Do Instead

Jack and Emma, Jack’s 6-year-old daughter, are in the car, on their way home. Jack has just picked Emma up from her Tuesday afternoon soccer game. “How was your game, sweetie?” Jack asks.

“It was bad,” Emma answers. “I didn’t make any passes.”

“Oh, honey, it’s OK,” Jack says. “You did your best, and that’s what matters. And it was so hot today! Maybe that’s what made it so hard. But you’re my best soccer player! Let’s go get an ice cream.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Jack obviously loves his daughter. Like most parents, he wants her to develop self-esteem and self-confidence, and he’s tried to help with that as he “reassured” her that her soccer is just fine. But look out. In situations like this – situations where the child feels bad about their performance or a challenge they’re having difficulty with – reassurance can do more harm than good. Here’s why:

–Jack didn’t actually reassure Emma! He only shared a more upbeat perspective. Emma doesn’t yet have Jack’s verbal skills, but that doesn’t mean she’s not really smart. Jack’s view notwithstanding, she knows she didn’t pass the ball, and that continues to bother her.

–Not only is Emma still aware of her problem, she’s also missed an opportunity to solve that problem. Had Jack handled Emma’s complaint another way, Emma could have gotten clearer about what she wishes had been different. And then she could have gotten clearer about how to make this happen. Had Jack helped Emma to reflect on her problem, Emma could have learned from it – and solved it.

Here’s how to avoid false reassurance and engage in a way that truly supports your child:

–Don’t immediately reassure. Don’t make excuses for the problem. Don’t distract with promises of ice cream.

–Instead, ask questions, in a low-key kind of way. Use dialogue that invites kids to tell you more about the complaint they just made. This helps them to get clearer about what they don’t like about the situation – and it helps them to get clearer about possible solutions. Here’s what I mean:

Jack and Emma are on their way home from the soccer game. “How was your game, sweetie?” Jack asks.
“It was bad,” Emma answers. “I didn’t make any passes.”

“They blocked your passes?”

“Yes. I couldn’t get the ball to my team.”

“You couldn’t get the ball to them.”

“Yes! I tried, but everyone was too close when I tried to pass.”

“The other side got too close to you.”

“Yes. I need to kick the ball when I still have room to pass.”

“Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes, Dad, I can do it. I’m gonna do it next time.”

“OK!” [conversation ends]

Here, Jack has helped Emma shift from her complaint to a solution. But he did it casually – he didn’t “force” a teaching moment, for example, by immediately asking what she can do differently next time. Instead, he invited her to say more about what she was thinking. This kind of casual approach works best, as it minimizes Emma’s resistance and engages her in her own thought process.

What if it’s not this easy?

This kind of dialogue really works! I’ve seen it over and over. I know, though, that some parents won’t believe it’s this simple, because their kid is excessively self-critical, a hardened pessimist. OK, fine – it isn’t always this easy. What if Emma had spiraled downward instead of moving through her problem? Dad prompts her to say more about the failed passes, and Emma says, “Yeah, everyone was too close… I can’t do it… soccer’s stupid… I can’t do it… I want to quit!”

In this situation, continue to prompt her to say more: “You don’t think you can do it.” “You think it’s a stupid game.” “You really don’t believe you can do it?” “You don’t want to do it anymore.” Here, it’s clear that Emma is not moving toward solutions, and Jack should just let the conversation wind down as she continues to pout.

At this point it gets real tempting to cheer Emma up, but just let her sit with her feelings. Don’t try to “fix” it. It’s OK to feel bad when we perceive we have to engage in an activity we think is hopeless. It’s OK (and arguably adaptive) to feel bad when we think we could have done better.

And more important, even as she sulks, Emma is – in whatever way she does this given her stage of development – engaged in some kind of reflection. Later she may decide she wants to play soccer again. Or she may really want to quit. Whether her parents allow her to quit is a different conversation, but Jack has engaged her in the kind of conversation that supports problem-solving. Even if that conversation ends in a nice long sulk, the sulk itself facilitates problem-solving to a much greater extent than does “cheerleading” and superficial reassurance. And helping kids to think in a way that quite often does lead to problem-solving – now that’s a self-esteem builder!

Next steps:

So what do you think? Do you agree with what I’ve shared here? The supportive conversations I’ve described do require listening skills, and they can be difficult at first. But you can begin to develop these skills today by following these simple steps:

–The next time your child is bummed about her performance, her skill level, or a challenge she faced, notice how it feels to want to “fix” it for her.

–Take one deep, 5-second breath before you say anything.

–Then, ask her to tell you more.

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