Helping children cope with growing pains


We were driving to Mass one Sunday, when from the back seat, 7-year-old Anna complained, “Mom, my head and ear hurt.” My mind began racing: Is she coming down with a bad cold? An ear infection? Strep throat? Should I take her to the walk-in clinic as soon as we leave church? Or should I wait and see how she’s doing tomorrow?

A few minutes later, I asked Anna how she was feeling. “Fine,” she said.

“Wonderful!” I reply. “That was a quick recovery.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I think my hair band was the problem. As soon as I took it off, I felt fine.”

Such is life with children. Sometimes the best solutions to problems are the simplest, most obvious ones. Sometimes we parents over-react. Children have a tendency to exaggerate, and they can be quite convincing. There are moments in parenting when we too eagerly jump into a problem without slowing down long enough to put it in perspective. On the other hand, there are times when we wish we had been more involved, more concerned, more aware of our children’s distress. Only in retrospect, do we realize how difficult a situation was.

When my oldest was in third grade, she complained almost every morning that her stomach hurt. Because Katie had never been one to fake illness, I took her complaints seriously, and she saw a doctor. She underwent some tests, and the results were all negative. It was only later that I realized her stomachaches were the result of stress she was feeling at school. Katie was caught in the middle between two girlfriends who continually quarreled and tried to force her to choose one friend over the other. To make matters worse, she had an unsympathetic teacher. Even now, seven years later, Katie remembers third grade as her most miserable year. And I look back on that year with regret, realizing I should have done more to help her cope.

However, the following year, more problems with friends developed. (According to what I’ve been told by experienced moms, jealousies among girlfriends are frequent at this age.) This time, two mothers and the teacher got involved. Ultimately the problem ballooned to the extent that more conflict ensued, and the two mothers, who’d been good friends, stopped speaking to each other. The mothers’ quarrel continued months after their daughters reconciled, but now, years later, the mothers have renewed their friendship. One of them later confessed: “I learned my lesson that year — Don’t interfere.”

That’s one of the great paradoxes of parenting. The same set of circumstances may warrant opposite responses (to intervene or not) — and we’re never sure which response is best. Through trial and error, we may become more skillful about knowing when to step in, but each successive child and problem is different from the one before. There’s no set formula by which to pattern our reaction.

As a result, through trial and error, I have developed a response to my children’s problems that I describe as “benign neglect.”

For me, benign neglect is the best initial response, although more aggressive action is sometimes needed. When my children first complain, I try to reserve judgment, keep perspective. I gather facts. (Take a temperature. Ask for details. Observe behavior.) Then, unless the facts dictate urgent action, I sit back and see if the problem will go away on its own. (That’s where the “neglect” comes in.) It’s amazing how many problems can be solved this way. Benign neglect gives children the first opportunity to solve the problem. It allows for the possibility the problem is fleeting. It teaches them to cope with everyday stresses of life. And it prevents me from worsening the problem by pushing my way into a situation when my involvement isn’t warranted or advised. Of course, if a problem isn’t resolved within a reasonable time, or if teachers express concern, I step in.

I wish every problem my children face were as simply solved as Anna’s tight hair band. I know that won’t be the case. When intervening isn’t the answer, one sure way to help my children cope is to let them know I’m available to listen, to pray with them, and, most important, to remind them of God’s comfort in difficult times.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.