As a parent, you want your child to be happy. I understand that completely because when my kids are happy, things tend to go smoothly at home.
That being said, the world is full of frustrations and disappointments, and kids are not immune to experiencing negative emotions. The reality is that your child can’t be happy all of the time.
You’re not going to throw the stress of taxes and job cuts at your child or try to upset him or her on purpose, but you will have to say no to things that are of paramount importance to your kids. Babies and toddlers hear, “No” so frequently it’s usually one of the first words they parrot back, and as kids grow up the list of limits and boundaries evolves, but definitely doesn’t disappear.
So, your child has to face situations that are not going to make him or her happy, and many times you are the one who has to deliver the very news that could result in anger, sadness, or some other negative feeling. Fortunately, you’re also the person your child turns to for support when the world has dished out a whopper of a disappointment.
I’m writing this to inform you of a trap that most parents, myself included, tend to fall into during these pivotal parenting moments: Sugarcoating.
Sugarcoating is the act of trying to avoid, deny, or wrap up a potentially upsetting message in words and gestures that somehow make it seem less upsetting than it actually is.
Here are some examples:
Your daughter was planning to watch a certain movie and you find out it’s not available so instead of being honest, you spend time trying to convince her she doesn’t really want to see the movie while offering other attractive options.
Your son didn’t get the role he wanted in the school play and you respond by talking about how great he is, saying that the directors totally messed up by not picking him, and possibly taking a dig at the child who got the role.
Your child comes to you with concerns about a serious topic (war, death, illness, etc.) and you say, “That will never happen to you/us,” or “You don’t need to worry about that,” and move on to a happy topic.
The problem with sugarcoating is that you think you’re doing it to help your child—to protect him or her from despair and heartache—but you’re really doing it to protect yourself from seeing your child struggle and suffer. And, sugarcoating backfires in the long run because “protecting” your child from negative emotions prevents him or her from developing the coping skills necessary to thrive in a world that offers ample trials and tribulations.
So, how do you avoid the trap of sugarcoating?
Three simple steps:
Using these steps, here’s how you may respond to the examples above without sugarcoating:
Your daughter was planning to watch a certain movie and you find out it’s not available so you say: The movie you wanted is sold out, what a bummer! You can pick another one or we can try to go next weekend.
Your son didn’t get the role he wanted in the school play and you respond by saying: That’s so disappointing babe, it feels bad not to be chosen.
Your child comes to you with concerns about a serious topic (war, death, illness, etc.) and you say: That’s a pretty big thing to be thinking about. I’ll answer your questions because it’s important to talk about things that are hard.
In the end, accepting that there is value in your child’s temporary struggle and discomfort is probably the most important thing to keep in mind. Knowing that the upset you see in the here-and-now paves the way for strong coping abilities and life-long resilience will give you the courage to be honest and direct and, most importantly, avoid the sticky sweet sugarcoating trap.
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