What the World Needs Now
The value of helping our kids (and ourselves) learn how to tolerate distress.
Posted September 4, 2019
As a mom of two young kids, I often find myself amazed by just how much I love my children. Like most parents, I want only the best for my kids and I find it incredibly difficult to see them in pain, be it physical or emotional. Indeed, the temptation that I feel to rescue them during moments of frustration or upset in order to put an end to their distress (and mine) is sometimes almost impossible to resist. And yet, my work as a clinical psychologist has led me to believe that the most loving gift that I can give my kids is to hold space for each and every one of their emotions, no matter how distressing, without trying to diffuse or extinguish them.
This was not always the case. In fact, once upon a time, I believed that the hallmark of a “good” parent was a child who rarely fussed while in that parent’s care. I silently judged parents whose children had tantrums out in public and I found myself in awe of the parents who could instantly soothe their children’s cries and maintain a joyful facade at all times. As a result, common tactics such as distraction and bribery seemed like vital strategies to master. And when push comes to shove, why not give gummies to a toddler during a diaper change in order to stave off any protests and make the experience more pleasant for everyone?
The Not-So-Obvious Answer
Most people hate to feel distressing emotions and I don’t blame them. After all, life would be much easier if we never had to experience any sort of discomfort. Yet, the reality is that distress is bound to show up in all of our lives, partly because its omnipresence is one of the only certainties in this world. This seems especially true now that I am a parent. Parenting is hard — really hard — and I am beginning to realize that being a kid might even be harder. Nevertheless, as is the case with all things that are inescapable, we have a choice as to how we relate to distress and what we model and teach our children in this regard.
One option is to try to eliminate distress by avoiding all potential triggers for it, and to encourage our children to do the same. This approach might help us feel more comfortable in the moment but likely comes with unfortunate long-term costs. First, when avoidance becomes our default coping strategy, our individual worlds start to shrink as the list of things we cannot do expands. Second, when avoidance inevitably fails to prevent distress from creeping into our lives, we find ourselves out of practice with how to cope in these natural circumstances.
Alternatively, given that distress is unavoidable, we can choose to expect to experience it on a regular basis and we can welcome this temporary state when it does visit us or our children. Critically, this willing stance allows all on board to practice moving effectively through moments of distress and thus sets us up for success in similar future encounters in a way that avoidance cannot.
Choosing to accept distress in this way is akin to choosing to take a vehicle with four-wheel drive on rocky roads rather than a clunkier car. Instead of having to constantly stop and look for alternate routes in order to get around rough terrain, you can simply drive over it, thus enabling you to save a great deal of time and energy on the long trip ahead of you. Sure, the clunkier car may be tempting to use due to its low price tag but choosing it will likely slow you down a great deal and may even make it impossible for you to reach your destination. Similarly, while avoidance may be a more reflexive, expedient way of responding than acceptance, it creates a much more arduous and time-consuming journey and may even prevent you from achieving your goals.
Leading Our Kids Down the Path of Avoidance
Given that accepting and tolerating distress is the clear winner in this dichotomous choice, one might assume that most, if not all, loving parents likely communicate messages along these lines to their children on a daily basis. Regrettably, however, in our quick-fix society, the majority of today’s parents prefer to avoid distress themselves, and thus unwittingly promulgate the myth that avoidance is the preferred strategy for coping with distress to their kids.
Evidence of this widespread bias in favor of avoidance can be found from birth when parents begin shushing their infant’s cries or distracting them from the disappointment of losing a toy by immediately presenting a replacement. Likewise, spend just a few minutes in any play space and I can almost guarantee that you will hear at least some of the adults there trying to convince distraught children to not feel how they feel.
Sadly, it has been posited that these types of invalidating early learning experiences can lead children to question the legitimacy of their own emotions and may result in them developing unhealthy, avoidant coping mechanisms.1 Even well-intentioned attempts to cajole children to say “I’m sorry” or to share a toy may indicate to them that their feelings don’t really matter and that inauthenticity is preferable to the distress that might come from relational conflict. These familiar examples elucidate just how eager most parents are to immerse their children in the same pool of avoidance in which they have been wading all their lives.
Taking the Path Less Traveled
As an expert in the treatment of anxiety, I have my work cut out for me when trying to convince my patients, many of whom are parents, of the therapeutic value of intentionally seeking out distress. Consequently, I realize that the idea of welcoming our children’s most distressing emotions might seem extreme and unorthodox. My hope, however, is that this post will lead you to consider adopting this science-informed approach anyway. Give your children permission to feel unwanted emotions and model for them what it looks like to experience uncomfortable feelings without letting these emotions dictate your every move. This is what unconditional love looks like, and it is this kind of love that the world needs now and forevermore.
1. Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.