“Deal with it.” This is probably not an unfamiliar phrase to you, and with summer break beginning, you may find these very words coming out of your mouth in response to your kids’ complaints of boredom, sibling issues, and what often feels like incessant demands. I heard it often as a child, I hear other parents say it, and I’ll admit I’ve said it to my own kiddo. Parents tell me that “in the real world” or “when kids grow up” they’ll have to learn to deal with things they can’t control, so why not start now? While I don’t disagree that learning to deal with adversity is most definitely a crucial life and survival skill, I’d like to offer a rebuttal to why telling our kids to “just deal with it” may not be fostering the resilience, compliance, or self-sufficiency that you are hoping for. I would like to provide some insight into the benefits of a different approach – fostering problem-solving.
Parents ask pretty often, “Why can’t my child be expected to deal with this or that and suck it up like I did as a kid?” The first problem with “just deal with it” or “figure it out on your own” is that it conveys no sense of empathy or validation that your child is experiencing distress, no matter how mild it may seem to you. Besides missing out on an opportunity to connect emotionally with your child, you’re communicating that they’re on their own with their problems. Instead, try offering encouragement or reflecting to them that you’re trying to understand their experience. “This sounds tough” or “I can tell how upset/stressed/etc you are. Do you have any ideas yet for dealing with this?” or “I remember something similar happening last week. Do you remember what helped?” The goal is to let your child know that you see and hear them and to get the wheels in their head turning so that they know what options exist. A co-worker and friend once told me that options are the opposite of hopelessness, and in a world where hopelessness fuels anxiety and depression, acknowledging options can provide much-needed relief, even in situations that may seem trivial to you.
Many parents want to foster their children’s independence, accountability, and tolerance for things like boredom and being told no, which is understandable as we live in a society that values these traits. We sometimes struggle with the idea that by not letting our kids “deal with it,” we will be fixing their problems for them and hence hindering the development of the traits mentioned above. While there are definitely issues that kids should at least attempt to work through on their own first, the reality is that kids are not yet developmentally armed with all the tools they need to handle many situations completely independently. The expectation that they “just deal with it” leaves them abandoned and unsupported with insufficient means for self-management. As Dr. Dan Siegel discusses, the “upstairs brain” is under construction during childhood and adolescence. Since this is the part of the brain responsible for thinking, problem-solving, and emotion regulation, we can’t count on our kids to be masters at figuring everything out on their own. While our goal is not to rescue or remove them from difficult decisions and situations, we should work diligently to help develop their upstairs brain skills through engaging them with problem-solving questions, alternatives, compromises, and connection strategies. By actively helping our kids learn and come up with ways to deal with boredom, not getting their way, or problems with friends or siblings, we are building their capacity for independence, accountability, self-efficacy, resilience, and improved decision-making. Another way to engage the upstairs brain is through physical activity. Try getting your child to move their body, and he’ll gain better access to the problem-solving and creative capacities of his upstairs brain.
The third problem with “just deal with it” is the possibility that kids will deal with problems in ways that are unhealthy or unsafe, or they may shut down – deciding to not deal with issues at all. Our job as parents is to shape attitudes and behaviors that help kids grow into kind, cooperative, compassionate adults who can effectively communicate and compromise to identify their needs and get them met appropriately. This is where relentless problem-solving teaches these skills and fosters empathy, confidence, and effective relational skills. The goal may not always be to fix a problem, but instead to problem-solve about how to cope with it. This could take the form of empathy and emotional support, or it may look like modeling through your own behaviors how to deal with problems. It could be that you help your child talk through the problem, the choices available, and the decision making process while helping them manage any emotions that come up along the way. Use these situations as opportunities to exercise and integrate the upstairs brain with the downstairs brain and the body. Not only will your child thrive but so will their relationship with you and others. Think of problem-solving as a chance to be creative in your parenting and know that you are strengthening a skill that your child will be able to use throughout their lives.