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Helping Your Child Move Past a Bad Experience

Using the power of narrative when bad things happen to your child.

Key points

  • When bad things happen, our first goal should be to do what we can to create stability and normalcy for our kids.
  • Children sometimes blame themselves for negative events.
  • A helpful narrative acknowledges children's feelings, emphasizes their strength, and offers hope.
Jenni C/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Empathy, new experiences, and a hopeful narrative can help kids move past stressful events.
Source: Jenni C/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A mom called me once after her son had been bullied. Fortunately, the bullying had stopped several months ago, with the help of school staff, but she said it had been very difficult, and both she and her son were still on edge from it. Her son was anxious about being around new people. Would they be mean to him?

She found herself wondering, every time another kid teased her son, “Is he being bullied, again?” She also felt guilty that she hadn’t been able to prevent the bullying and wondered if her kid would be permanently damaged by the experience.

Minimizing the Impact of Stressful Events on Kids

This mom was worried about the impact of bullying, but I’ve heard this “Will my kid be scarred for life?” fear related to parental unemployment, divorce, serious illness, death of a loved one, family relocation, and so many other stressful events.

Much as we’d like to, we can’t protect our kids from all negative experiences. When bad things happen, our first goal should be to do what we can to create stability and normalcy for our kids. In this boy’s case, it was very good news that the bullying had stopped. We can’t erase bad memories, but we can create new, positive memories on top of them.

We can also help our kids construct a narrative about what happened that makes room for hope.

The Power of Narrative

People are meaning-making creatures. Sometimes kids create a narrative about negative events that’s focused on their personal flaws. It may be easier for them to believe that, for example, they caused their parents’ divorce by not picking up their room than to believe that sometimes things happen that they can’t control.

We want to help kids create a narrative that genuinely acknowledges their feelings but also speaks to their strength and values and emphasizes the possibility of personal growth and a positive future.

In the case of the mom whose son was bullied, the narrative might sound something like this:

What those kids did to you was wrong. Nobody deserves to be treated that way. I wish I could have protected you from ever having to go through that.

But I’m also proud of you. You could have been nasty back to them, but you weren’t. You could have just curled up in a ball and given up, but you didn’t.

And I bet you’ll use this experience somehow. Maybe one day you’ll be the one to help someone who’s getting picked on.

I know you struggled. I know you suffered. But you also kept going and found real friends. It took a lot of inner strength to deal with what you had to deal with. I think it’s a pretty great thing to learn about yourself that, even at your age, you can face a very difficult situation, and, with the help of people who care about you, get through it

Portions of this post were excerpted from my book Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem.

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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.

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