Troubled by Our Children's Troubles?

I was listening to a tape about parenting and was struck by this phrase. "As long as we are troubled by our childrens' troubles, we can't be of much help to them." Troubled by their troubles? What parent isn't? What gives us more pain as parents than watching our children experiencing difficulty or struggle in their lives?

Yet what she was saying also rang true. I think of what happens to me when my son lapses into helplessness, when he is unwilling or unable to exert himself to do things that we both know he is perfectly capable of. I am immobilized. This trouble that he is having is so hard on me that I am worse than useless. I can't really put any thought to what is going on for him, because I am totally consumed with my own reaction--how mad it makes me, how helpless I feel in the face of that helplessness. I just want to shake him or yell or walk right out of that reality. I've tried the first two--which provide some marginal relief of bottled up feelings for me but don't help him at all. I'm still waiting on the technology for the latter, but somehow I doubt that it would be a real solution.

I'm trying to imagine what the woman in the tape was suggesting. What would it be like if I was not troubled by that recurring helplessness of his? What if I could just notice it objectively as a difficulty that someone I loved was having, and put that love and all my smarts and creativity to work trying to figure out how to help him out?

It occurs to me that this is one of the reasons why it's useful for children to have close relationships with more than one or two adults. Not everyone is troubled by the same troubles. I, for example, have a hard time watching my boys struggle with athletics. It just makes me feel bad to see them having a hard time. And with a good part of my attention on how bad it makes me feel, I'm not that good at helping them. My husband sees it much more objectively and is interested by the challenge of trying to offer new skills, opportunities for practice, etc. There are other areas where their difficulties get to him, but I find it easy to stay relaxed and creative.

Now there are lots of different levels of struggle. Difficulties about tying shoes pale in comparison to major struggles with school or peers or self-image or addiction or health. But I think the principle is the same. Jumping in with our children and feeling as worried or hopeless as they do, or responding out of our own anger or resentment or fear at the situations they offer us, is never useful to them. We're not bad for feeling that way. But we need to be able to unload those feelings with somebody else, so that we can come back to our children less troubled by their troubles, and more able to think clearly about what will help.

So when I see my eldest in the throes of helplessness over the prospect of getting his boots off, I promise myself hopefully, I will no longer resonate in impotence and rage. Rather, I will see a smart, creative, competent, totally lovable human being who's raising a flag for some kind of help. I will offer myself, relaxed, warm and untroubled. Under those conditions, figuring out what needs to happen next--if anything--will be easy. What a prospect!