Parenting Without Power Struggles, by Susan Stiffelman, is the best parenting book I’ve read.
That’s high praise considering that I’ve read twenty-six parenting books over the last thirteen years. Stiffelman has a gift for offering logical parenting advice in a practical way. The beauty of her writing is her ability to present cogent parenting advice with real life examples suggesting how to incorporate her advice into your family’s life.
I highly recommend reading this book and others Stiffelman has written. I’m going to attempt to summarize her most salient points in a series of blog posts for parents like me – those who, despite best intentions, have a stack of unread books and magazines cluttering the nightstand. I’m going to start with the chapter that is currently the most relevant to my life.
Chapter 5, “Helping Kids Deal With Frustration,“
is illuminating. Stiffelman’s message is simple yet profound – children have to experience disappointment in order to learn coping skills. In other words, resist the urge to fix all of your child’s problems. As difficult as it may be for parents to watch, our children must experience sadness and loss in order to learn coping skills.
It’s tempting to try to eliminate your child’s frustrations both because you want your child to be happy and because, let’s face it, it’s draining to deal with an unhappy child. But in the long run you are doing your child a disservice. A child who does not learn to cope with adversity becomes an adult lacking necessary skills to function in the real world. As Stiffelman points out, “Our ability to live joyful and successful lives depends on our ability to adapt.”
When your child is unhappy, instead of rushing in to solve his problem, help him work through it. Stiffelman points out that while a child is frustrated is not a good time to lecture, teach, or advise. Instead, sit with your child, listen, and validate his feelings. Stiffelman sagely advises that, “Parents who help their youngsters learn the essential life skill of adaption have bestowed upon them a priceless gift, equipping them with the means to be happy regardless of whether people, events, or circumstances conform to their expectations.”
Of course there are some problems that parents should step in and fix. Stiffelman’s point is that parents should not make life so easy that a child feels no sadness or disappointment. Depriving a child of the chance to feel these emotions means he or she will will not develop the resilience to cope with life. As Stiffelman cautions, “Children who believe they can only be happy if events unfold in the way they wish become handicapped adults, unable to cope with disappointment.”
Stiffelman references psychologist Gordon Neufeld’s “Wall of Futility.” She explains that a child experiencing disappointment needs to find feelings of sadness and tears before being able to move on and adapt. Once the tears come, the child can understand that life does not always unfold the way we plan, but we can adapt. What a gift! As Stiffelman points out, our ability to live happy lives truly depends on our ability to adapt when we feel frustrated or sad. Stiffelman outlines the stages of grief – DABDA – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. These stages apply to disappointment as well as to grief.
As parents it is our job to help our children acknowledge frustration, allow them to feel sad, listen, and help them develop resilience to work through their disappointments. As Stiffelman notes, “[w]hen our children grow up believing that they can only really be happy if events in their lives unfold in the particular way they want them to, they become handicapped adults, unable to cope with experiences outside their control, and they suffer enormously as a result.”
Our family recently experienced a very unexpected difficulty. I found myself instinctually trying to shield my children from the resultant disappointments. Then I remembered this chapter, reread it, and changed my approach. I was amazed at my daughters’ resilience and ability to work through their disappointments when I allowed them to feel sad and angry.