Parenting is not for the faint of heart. The day-to-day doing, supplying resources for their demands, and juggling schedules can bring me to my knees. But I can usually wipe my brow and sigh and swear my way through tough days. I am built for hard work. Conditioning myself to the emotional work of parenting, on the other hand, has been a lot harder.
Watching my kids struggle through physically demanding tasks that cause them to cry or growl in frustration feels impossible at times. I will always help my kids if they have first tried to help themselves, but they are learning new skills on their fast-paced journey toward independence and sometimes the best help I can give them is to not get involved. This is true with their emotions too. While it can be hard for me, it is incredibly important to give my kids the space they want and need to work through their feelings on their own.
I am a fixer. My instinct is to help. I want to make things, situations, and people better. This reaction doesn’t come from a condescending or judgmental place; it stems from trauma. As someone who lives with PTSD and OCD, I am constantly evaluating my surroundings. Ultimately, I want to feel safe; but in order for that to happen I need to feel comfortable. Because I am a sometimes-messy, work-in-progress human, I allow the comfort level of the people in my space to determine how I am feeling. If someone is unhappy, sad, or anything but seemingly calm and content, my anxiety soars and I am tempted to do or say too much to “fix” their mood.
This is incredibly unfair to me and the people around me. It’s not my job to make sure everyone is happy all of the time. And no person is required to always be comfortable. People don’t need to be fixed; we need to be allowed to feel.
This applies to kids too. Resilience is born from discomfort, and while I don’t want my kids to suffer, I want them to know how to self-regulate during stressful times. I want them to have the confidence to believe they can sit with big feelings. I want them to know they can move through them. I am constantly reminding myself that they have every right to do this on their own.
It is not my job to troubleshoot their problems or rush their emotions to a place that makes me more comfortable. Their feelings are not mine, and I never want to place my emotional needs onto my children.
My oldest daughter is nine and my twins are six. Since they were toddlers, each of my children have told me in some version of their verbal ability at the time that they wanted to be alone. Sometimes they just craved the quietness of their thoughts or play; they were deep in creativity or reflection and wanted to be by themselves. Other times they needed to be left alone because they were pissed or upset or embarrassed. In all cases, they were requesting space.
I recognized that their request stirred that need in me to fix. It was important for me to step back and ask myself if I was perceiving or projecting emotions that weren’t there.
My alone child is not lonely. If my child asks for space, that does not necessarily mean they are withdrawing or shutting me out; they are trusting me enough to tell me what they need. I want to respect that.
There is a buddy bench at my kids’ school playground. If a child is feeling lonely or sad or just bored they sit on the bench and a classmate or teacher will come over and check in. I love the idea of teaching kids how to ask for help and companionship; I also love that other kids respond in kind awareness. But not all kids who find a place to sit by themselves want company.
While at the playground after school one day, I saw a friend of my daughter’s sitting by himself, leaning against the brick wall of the building and visibly upset. I immediately wanted to check in on him; I wanted to make sure he was okay. Then I told myself it was okay if he wasn’t okay. His safety was important, but his feelings were allowed to be whatever they needed to be in the moment.
He knows me well so I decided to say hello. I asked if he needed help or wanted company. He said no; he wanted to be alone. I understood that. I honored his request. I told him where I was sitting and where my daughter was playing if he wanted to join either one of us. He nodded and I walked away. After a few minutes he rejoined the group of kids playing on the playground.
I had less of an emotional attachment to this child than my own, but it was still difficult to walk away. When I have done this dance with one of my three kids, it feels like I am failing them. Emotional turmoil—mine and theirs—is not failure, though.
I know what it is like to want to be by myself when I am overwhelmed with feelings. It is so much easier to process and make sense of what I am experiencing when I don’t have people around me who are unknowingly creating inhibitions. I can only cry with reckless abandon in front of one person. I can’t articulate my needs and what would actually make me feel better to more than a few people in my life. Those same people are the ones who can just sit quietly with me while providing nonjudgmental company. I try to respect my children’s needs for empathy in the same way.
I give my kids space when they ask for it, but I also remind them that taking space is always a good choice. Walking away from our kids is not abandoning their needs; in many cases, allowing our kids to be alone is supporting growth and building their resilience.