Supporting a struggling child
Updated: May 19
Throughout a child’s time at school, there will be times when they seem to be coping in class, on the sports field or shining in cultural pursuits. They may have many friends and appear to be well adjusted socially. These are the times when our children and us was parents are content. However, this is not always the case, and often we are left worrying and trying to help our children as they navigate the turbulent waters of childhood and adolescence. How do we help them, and how can we support them through their challenges can become an all consuming dilemma that can leave both parent and child frustrated and overwhelmed. You are not alone, and this process doesn't have to be like this.
Start at the beginning
It is important to have a good understanding of what struggling means as this forms the basis of our concerns. Here are two definitions for the term struggle - “have difficulty handling or coping with something” or “Strive to achieve or attain something in the face of difficulty or resistance”. It is quite clear from these two definitions that the term struggle can be interpreted as a negative or as a positive challenge for an individual. The framing of a situation in which a person is seen to be struggling relies heaving on the perspective from which a person interprets the challenges faced. The cartoon to the right highlights this perfectly, as a potentially negative situation (tethered to lead) is framed in a positive light, while framing the naturally more positive situation (freedom) in a negative light. How we view a problem or challenges is going to significantly influence how to approach them, for both parents and children.
Apples with Oranges
Identifying that a child is struggling is very often a result of comparing them with other children or even ourselves. Is a child struggling because they are not able to complete a task or activity like the rest of the class does? Does it mean that they are struggling because they do not answer questions the way that we do, or think about problems the same way as their brother or sister? No. All of us are unique, and will have our very own personality, thinking patterns, interests, motivations etc. As such, we are all different and we cannot expect our children to all be fitting into the various “boxes” that we expect them to. Our very own expectations of our children, our understanding of their abilities, strengths and weakness, as well as the goals that we have identified for them will be significant contributing factors in determining whether a child is “struggling” or not.
It’s not me, it’s you
We need to ask the very important question of: “is my child struggling, or am I struggling with my child’s challenges?” Being able to honestly answer this question will shed a lot of light on what the actual problem is. Do you have certain expectations of your children that are not being met, therefore they must be struggling? For example, if a child is very capable of achieving A’s but seems to be under performing, does this mean they are “struggling”, or are they possibly just not as interested in achieving A’s as you are? Your children are likely to have very different outlooks on life than you do and additionally their motivations are also going to be very different to yours. We need to constantly be questioning ourselves to be clear on who really is struggling.
Square Pegs in Round Holes
Having an idea of what we expect of a child is normal, parents will do it as well as teachers. A general preconceived idea of what you expect of a child will be running in the back of your mind. These preconceived ideas will be informed by your own upbringing, childhood, schooling and experiences and this will inform your expectations. Taking a moment to reflect on this will go a long way in supporting your child as if we are constantly trying to fit a square peg (a unique child) into a round hole (preconceived expectations), we are going to be met with resistance and hard work, and we need to be cautious to we don't apply a “hammer and chisel” approach to force our children to fit into these expectations as the damage on both parent and child can be significant.
Challenge is a part of Life
Challenge is normal and natural. It serves a purpose in motivating and driving us to be better and to achieve great things. Challenges allow us to test out what we have learned and to practice and refine our skills. Challenges will define us as individuals and as such we all have to be challenged, including your children. If we do not allow our children to engage with their own personal challenges, we are taking the responsibility away from them. We are “filling the cracks” for them so that they can have a smooth journey. But this is unrealistic. Life is messy and hard and the reality is that you will not always be there to fill the cracks for your child. They need to learn to overcome these challenges themselves, from a very young age, and take responsibility. If they don't learn then, when do we expect them to develop the skills to cope with real world problems? The same environment which hardens eggs softens potatoes, and so we need to allow a child to figure out what they are “made of” so that they can learn how to handle situations in manner that be suits them and they characteristics. Your role as a parent is not to create a clone of yourself, but to encourage and train your child to take responsibility for their actions, choices and behaviour.
It is a strange concept that support can be counter-productive, but the reality is that this can occur. Or own motivation to intervene and support our children is most often justified because we want the best for them, or we don't want them to suffer or struggle. Although the motivation to support is just, the act of support is often counterproductive to your motivation. Intervening too early, or inappropriately means that a child will not truly experience a challenge before them. If they don't experience first hand, they will not develop they skills and understanding to handle similar situation in the future and as such they will continually “struggle” and not cope, meaning they will constantly require you, or someone else to intervene on their behalf.
Supporting your Child
Four key components play an important role in the support that you can and should offer to your child.
Identifying a struggling child
Identifying whether your child is going through a difficult time can often become evident through changes in their personality or behaviour. Be aware of any concerns raised by friends or teachers about things they have noticed in your child. This may also be supported by ‘acting out’ behaviour or on the other side, withdrawing from their regular activities or engagements. Do they appear overwhelmed, stressed, overly sad or anxious. If you become aware of any changes and mentioned above, it is important that you then assess what possible factors may have lead to this change. For example, you will more than likely notice your child is quieter and more stressed during examination time. This is normal, and does not mean that they are struggling. If however you notice a more drastic or consistent change that seems to persist even after the perceived reason, then it may be a more significant problem.
Once you feel that your child is experiencing a particular challenge, it is crucial that you have a good understanding of why this is a problem. Being aware of how long it has been a problem will also provide insight into the severity of the challenge. In understanding the challenge, it must be clear whether it is a problem for your child or for you as his parent. Furthermore it is important to reflect on what may have contributed to this problem, what has been done about it, as well as what role you may have played in creating or prolonging the problem.
Once you fully understand a problem it becomes possible for us to accept certain aspects or contributing factors. We need to accept the fact that things will be challenging for your child at some point which you cannot always protect them from. You need to accept that your child is unique and has his own strengths and weakness, independent of you. At some point you child will fail, this is normal and a natural part of our development. You need to accept that you cannot always protect your child and as a result your child needs to learn to face and deal with the challenges in front of them.
As you reflect and understand the challenge that your child faces it should be come clearer whether your intervention in the situation is necessary and appropriate. You need to seriously consider whether your intervention will be removing the responsibility from your child and as such removing the possibility for them to embrace the situation as a learning experience. The actions that you take at this point should be motivated to teach your child how to take ownership and personal responsibility for their actions. Allowing your child to face the challenge independently, but offering guidance and support from the sidelines can be some of the best support you can offer your child.
By allowing your child to face a challenge on their own, you are creating an opportunity for them to learn from their experience, their failures and their success. These experiences will allow your child to develop resilience, which is the ability to ‘spring back’ in difficult hard times. Resilience is closely related to the concept of Grit which is the combination of passion and perseverance. By allowing your child to face their own challenges, they learn to rely on their own motivation (passion) to persevere and achieve their goals.
As children practice and develop their “grittiness”, they take control of their lives and assume ownership of what happen to them. Here is a great TED discussion about GRIT.
Take a Step Back
As much as helping your child to succeed is part of the job description of being a parent, we need to constantly be reflecting on what our motivation is for getting involved and intervening in our child’s life. Are we getting involved because we need to feel valued and needed by our child (for our own self worth), or are we intervening in order to help teach our children how to handle problem, life and people. At the end of the day you cannot and will not be able to control everything that happens in you child’s life (especially as they enter in to the later years of adolescence). You will not be able to always protect them and make sure that they are always happy and have everything that they want, this is unrealistic. Keeping this in mind in our daily interactions with our children should encourage you to take a step back and allow them to cope on their own. If they cannot, you intervene and teach them how to cope, and step back again and again. You need to accept your limits as a parent and understand that your child is going to continue on their own personal journey whether you like it or not, and when this happens all you can do is take a step back and trust that the values, experiences and skills you have given them will be enough to help them through good and bad times.