“Difficult” Is Not a Synonym for “Traumatic”

posted in: Parenting | 35

Traumatize /ˈtrouməˌtīz,ˈtrôməˌtīz/ (verb): subject to lasting shock as a result of an emotionally disturbing experience or physical injury.

Last week, the TODAY Parenting Team featured an article I wrote called “A Tale of Two Kindergarteners,” as part of their community series on back-t0-school advice. I chose to share a story from two years ago about my son’s struggles starting kindergarten. He had a rough go of it, and it was hard for me to watch. But in time, he found his courage and confidence, and I wanted to give hope to other parents who might be going through this.

By in large, the response was positive. Yet, like disconcerting pieces of gristle that ruin an otherwise tasty piece of chicken, came voices of dissent, peppered throughout those responses of parents relating to the piece. It comes with the territory of putting yourself out there. What I thought was a fairly innocuous piece, I now saw in a different light, one that called my parenting skills into question for forcing my son to do something he clearly had fears about.

My husband’s aunt often jokes that all parents will inevitably do something for which their children will need therapy. Well, apparently the transgression that will land my son on the psychiatrist’s couch is sending him to kindergarten. It was a very difficult situation, after all. I sure felt like a horrible mother when I left him crying on the bus or tearful in his classroom morning after morning. Maybe he really was traumatized.

Well, I don’t buy it. Mostly because I have the benefit of actually being the one in the situation and knowing exactly how it played out. But it got me thinking about a larger question than whether I failed Send Your Kid to Kindergarten 101: Is “difficult” a synonym for “traumatic?”

Since when did making our kids do hard things become poor parenting? When did pushing them outside of their comfort zones to face fears get equal billing as trauma? When did it become okay to let them give up on something worthwhile simply because they cried about it? In other words, when has anyone ever blamed their life’s woes and tortuous demons on their mom making them go to kindergarten?

I’m not talking about actual abuse or making children confront fears that have no business or purpose being conquered. I mean, it’s not like I forced my kid to traverse the Grand Canyon on a tight wire, or commanded him to hold still while I let spiders crawl up his arms, or made him kiss his dead grandfather lying in the casket. (I won’t name names, but my great-grandmother actually made a certain family member of mine do that last one. Super gross.) I’m referring to helping children get over perceived fears that keep them from doing things that will ultimately enrich their lives and empower them with confidence.

We do a disservice to our children if we only push them to tasks that come easily. We give fear power in their minds if we let them always run from experiences that frighten them. And let’s be honest: kids are afraid of things that, frankly, are NOT actually terrifying…like fireworks, eating Pinterest recipes that call for kale, branches knocking on windows, and Dad after he hasn’t shaved for a few days. It’s our job as parents to help them distinguish what is worthy of their fear and what isn’t, even if confronting it is uncomfortable at first. Sometimes that means throwing them into the midst of their fear and letting them flounder a bit until they see for themselves that everything really is okay. Realizing that for oneself is a thousand times more powerful than having someone else vouch that it’s truth.

But what about their feelings? Children deserve to have their feelings honored. But here’s the thing…

Respecting your child's feelings doesn't always mean you have to bow to them. Click To Tweet
difficult parenting
By D. Sharon Pruitt from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I never ignored my son’s feelings about starting school. I never told him to suck it up (that is reserved for tears over the fact that we don’t have WiFi in our car so he can’t finish a Netflix movie on the way to Grandma’s house). We talked about ways he could feel comfortable, focus on the positive, and remember that I loved him even when he couldn’t see me. And whenever those didn’t work, I let him have his feelings while doing everything I could to compassionately help him work through them…while he was facing them head on. Keeping him home would have only taught him it’s okay to let the fear win.

As Glennon Melton professes, “We can do hard things.” I don’t think the “we” in that mantra was meant to only pertain to adults. We need to give our children some credit. They really aren’t that delicate, but they will grow up to think they are if we always treat them as such.

As for my son, he COULD do that hard thing. Now he walks through the school doors as if he’s walking through his own back door. And the only thing he really seems traumatized about is that we still don’t have WiFi in our minivan.

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35 Responses

  1. Speaking from a person who has been a preschool teacher for the past six years… It is much harder for the child (and teacher, parents, everyone involved) if parents make a bigger deal out of coming by honoring every single feeling a child has. Yes, it does take some children longer than others to adjust to being away from their parents all day. But not having confidence in your child and their ability to “do hard things”, as you say definitely makes the transition period a lot longer. In no way is going to school something that should be an option.

    Let me tell you, a lot of children in this world would be a lot better off if their parents pushed them a little bit. As a teacher I thank you for approaching this topic. Who knows, maybe your article was just what some of those parents who were critical of it needed to read.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments from the perspective of a teacher! I was fortunate that my son’s teacher was so helpful with this situation and really encouraged him while he was at school. I’m so happy we both believed in him enough to know he would pull through his fears!

  2. Preach! This article from the Atlantic is germane to this discussion. Trigger warning: contents are absolutely appalling.
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

    • I love you for posting this. This article was both interesting and terrifying. Probably because you and I both saw the truth of it when we were in the classroom.

  3. You should have let him come home and play video games all day. That’s what a good parent would have done. Probably should have made him cupcakes while he played, too, after making sure that he was not afraid of cupcakes, of course.

  4. Yes! Thank you! Parents shouldn’t be “shamed” for helping their children grow and learn from experiences. Children can do a lot of things, including conquering fears, when given the chance. We as parents can also learn a lot by watching our children grow in certain situations and conquer fears.

  5. No, difficult is not synonymous with traumatic. As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you first hand the importance of facing things that are challenging head on, because I avoided doing so most of my childhood. It’s paralyzing, as difficulties and even failure are inevitable in life, or in pursuit of almost any worthwhile goal. Sounds like your son gained some resilience that will serve him well down the road!

    • I can very much relate to being a recovering perfectionist. And yes, it is harder to deal with that as an adult! I do think my son came out on the other side better for it.

  6. Excellent post! I’m so glad to hear that there are other parents out there, that actually do their job of parenting! No one ever promised that parenting would be easy or that we’re supposed to be their friend, instead, we’re the responsible adults! Our job is to teach them, so when they become adults they’ll be able survive and even thrive.

  7. I read this earlier but HAD to come back and comment. I am with you all the way on this. I have to practice “tough love” on my daughter almost daily or she’d become a hermit. My mom always says, “If it’s really hard for you to do (in parenting), then it’s probably the right thing.” I mean, it would have been sooo easy to take your son home and cuddle him all day when he was upset. And I am betting the whole situation was harder on you than him! Keep it up girlie! Keep being an amazing parent and for the love of all things, keep writing about it. <3

    • I love your mom! That’s a really great saying, and so very true! Thank you for coming back to comment. Hearing something like this from you does worlds of good for me!

  8. As an adult who truly did have a traumatic childhood, I can tell you that there’s a huge difference between difficult and traumatic. A child is traumatized when the adults in their life don’t have the emotional tools to guide them through difficult circumstances and leave them to figure it out for themselves. A child is traumatized when they’re placed in scary situations without the benefit of love, support and information. My son complained or cried nearly every day of kindergarten last year. It was hard and we had to dig deep as a family to help him through it. He started first grade this year and he’s a completely different kid. He has the kind of confidence that can only come from facing challenges (with the love and support of friends and family).

    My daughter started kindergarten this year and she told me that there’s a boy in her class who cries everyday because he misses his mommy. She said, “He reminds me of my brother so I put my hand on his back and told him it would be ok.” She didn’t learn that kind of compassion through a storybook or cartoon. She learned it from real life experience.

    • Oh Karen! That story about your daughter just made my heart melt. What a little gem you have. And you’re right, she learned well from her mama. When I saw that someone had commented that putting my crying son on a bus was traumatic for him, I thought, “No. That is not trauma. There are children facing REAL trauma everyday, and this isn’t it.” You speak so clearly and powerfully about this. I think I will always remember this distinction you put forth here: “A child is traumatized when the adults in their life don’t have the emotional tools to guide them through difficult circumstances and leave them to figure it out for themselves. A child is traumatized when they’re placed in scary situations without the benefit of love, support and information.” It’s an important thing to know when the word “traumatic” gets thrown around.

  9. My little C has separation anxiety, so this is something I’ve dealt with in regards to him sleeping in his own bed and dropping him off at preschool.

    I often have to reassure him that, yes he can do things. Yes, he is a big, smart boy. Yes, he’ll have fun with other boys and girls, learn new things, and play outside.

    Every morning I get a high five and, ” I slept in my bed like a big boy!” When I pick him up from school I hear about how much fun he had and his friend Brittany.

    There is nothing wrong with encouraging, or pushing, your child into things which benefit them. In fact, that’s just good parenting.

  10. I am a school counselor and every year we have kids who really struggle with starting school. For some students who are used to being in environments that they know and around people they know change can be hard, but it’s ok. Being scared of the bus is normal especially for a kinder. The bus is big, loud, no seat belts, lots of kids you don’t know and some are bigger than you. Kindergarten can also be scary for some kids it’s the first time they are away from home for that long everyday. Students get homesick and upset and we work through it. You are right difficult is not a synonym for traumatizing.

    • Thank you so much for your perspective! It makes sense that it can be a scary situation. I never had to ride a bus to school, but I think I was the kind of kid who would have been nervous about it. So I could understand my child being scared. However, I also knew facing that fear wouldn’t damage him.

  11. Thanks for this. I needed to read it today. :)

  12. Bravo Kelly! While I am all for open dialogue and I don’t think every reader has to congratulate us or support our writing, I am constantly stunned by the truly hurtful and mean things some readers write. Now that I am regularly contributing to HP, I get comments that stop me cold. I can’t think of better parenting, than to teach our children to face challenges and move forward. You rock!

    • Kelly Suellentrop

      Did it seriously take me over two months to respond to this comment? Oy vey. I have been lucky so far over on HP, but I know that can be one of the WORST places for receiving hurtful comments. You’ve always handled yourself well!

  13. Thank you for reminding parents that they are doing the right thing even when it doesn’t always feel like it. Parents need to trust their parenting and know that they raised their kids to handle hard situations. If we teach them and then go back and coddle we are not helping them gain confidence. As a mom of 5 kiddos 4 of them adults now, I can look back and see times when I did run in and save them or kept them from hard things. I parent different now, I teach them, then sit back and encourage them to make choices, live with consequences good and bad and remind they are always loved!!

  14. Thank you for being courageous and standing up for your own decisions as a mother and parent! It’s ridiculous how society dictates how mothers should choose to raise their children. Wise words.

    https://themodernmotherhoodproject.wordpress.com/

  15. Thank you for being courageous and standing up for your own decisions as a mother and parent! It’s ridiculous how society dictates how mothers should choose to raise their children. Wise words. – Michelle M

    https://themodernmotherhoodproject.wordpress.com/

  16. Coming from another preschool teacher: I’ve pried many children from their parents arms those first few weeks of preschool. Many do cry. Some even scream and hit me but we assure the parents they will adjust and eventually (some take longer than others) will walk into the classroom without shedding a tear. Transition is hard but we always encourage the parents to hang in there and not give up or give in. Their children are coming into a loving environment where they are safe and cared for.

    I didn’t get to read your first blog post but after reading this one, it’s very apparent you had your son’s best interest in mind. You were not traumatizing him but giving him strength to overcome his fears!

    • Kelly Suellentrop

      Thank you! And God bless teachers like you for helping make that easier for parents like me. It means to the world to us when we know we have your support, and that you are caring for our kids after we leave them crying in your classroom :)

  17. thank you so much for writing your thoughts out about, this I am a first time parent and am always worried about what I should let her do on her own and what I shouldn’t be letting her learn just yet, (she is 16 months).
    I am learning from my own mother and from my friends that have kids, and from what I have been reading up on.
    but most of all I am learning form my daughter, and what she feels able to do and not do, I try hard not to say no to her when she wants to explore her world!

    • Kelly Suellentrop

      It’s hard to go wrong when you are open to learning from your own child! Each kid is unique, so books and advice aren’t one size fits all. The worry that you are doing the right thing never goes away, but it will become easier and easier to trust your gut. Thanks for stopping by to read this! Good luck to you!

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