I recently read another feel-good post about letting go of grievances and how important this skill is for children. Certainly, carrying an unresolved grievance—even those that are morally understandable—is a burden. But, asserting the importance of “letting go” without a hint of “how to” is just as much of a burden.And, it’s a disservice. Because to equate a child’s psychological well-being with an ability to “roll with the punches” may end up teaching martyrdom more than resilience, opening up the door to denial of feelings and acceptance of injustice.And, truth be told, there is nothing unhealthy about a 7-year-old who is incensed about uneven french fry distribution. Or, an adult woman incensed about unequal pay. The “complainer” versus the “resilient child” is a false and unnecessary dichotomy, so please throw out the labels and the measuring tape.Resolving emotional burdens takes practice, and no small amount of skill-building. Along the way, you can support your child (and yourself). I share some tools below, but keep in mind that managing grievances is not easy at any age . . . unless perhaps you’re under three.Threes and under—and this is a developmental reality the grievance post did not mention— don’t know how to hold on to a grievance or grudge. When toddlers and early preschoolers are angry, they are angry in the moment. When they are over it, they are over it. No wasted time reminding you—loving parent who blew it—about how you disappointed them, made them sad, hurt them or otherwise earned their grievance. When hurt by a playmate or unable to work out a satisfying play date, they are often glad that the friend went home, but equally glad to play again another day, maybe even the same day after a nap.
It’s as we get a little older that we acquire not only the skills, but the intent to maintain grievance—or not to. With expanding brain development we now have a memory of events, an ability to judge those events and speak in terms of right and wrong, and, of course, a sense of internal life and experience that can be supported by self-talk and sharing with others. This means that we begin to acquire patterns related to managing and resolving grievances as elementary age children. And, as a parent, there are some things you can do to support this process.
1. Listen to your children. How is your child putting the world together? You will not know about the challenges they are facing unless they can give you a hint of their inner life. This is not necessarily easy. Most parents learn quickly that direct questions rarely work and are often experienced as intrusive or controlling. A well-intentioned parent may become more of a problem for the child than the events or petty grievances of their day.
2. Understand development. As children explore early moral development it is often rigidly based in rules. An early sense of grievance/injustice is perceived in the context of personal experience. For example, a child may report to a parent something like, “Yesterday the teacher said my turn to be line-leader would be today, then the substitute let George do it.” This is a real moral grievance within the context of the child’s understanding of rules and sense of how the world should work.A parent might begin by:
- Affirming the child’s understanding of the rule and how rules help us know when our turn should happen.
- Affirming the child’s feelings of disappointment.
- Perhaps, opening the discussion to further reflection about people and eventual resolution. Such as, “Do you think the substitute didn’t know how it works in your class? Do you think when your teacher is back you could ask her for your turn again?”
[Note: You often don’t need to hurry this step. Sometimes if the child has had affirmation of their understanding and their emotions it is enough for the moment. Middle elementary is often soon enough to stretch personal perspective to include the view from the other side.]
3. Identify and support core skills. Siblings and friendship experiences during the elementary years give children and parents lots of opportunity to explore the nature of grievance, as well as, develop skills at positive resolutions. Learning to problem solve social issues as they arise has several components:
- Learning to state one’s personal experience as an issue without blaming or name calling the other is a core skill.
- Honoring one’s own and another’s personal boundaries is another core skill.
4. Point your needle towards what really matters. Because the developing mind can now judge good and bad, it can easily become critical of everything! For a parent, it can seem that a child’s whole day can center around every petty grievance. For tools to manage your own inner life, we can borrow a strategy from the new field of Positive Psychology. One tool in particular appears to have benefit for all ages, namely, focusing on those things for which we are grateful. Literally, asking oneself “What could be good about this?” For a parent frustrated by a child’s on-going complaints a list could be:
- I’m grateful she’s healthy.
- I’m grateful she has a brother to complain about.
- I’m grateful she has a sense of right and wrong.
- I’m grateful she can recognize her boundaries.
- Even, I’m grateful she’s going to school tomorrow. : )
We never know if our children will make the choice to set aside grievances and the burdens associated with them. Our task is to love them and, as much as possible, offer them the opportunity to learn the skills for managing both their social world and their inner lives by practicing those skills ourselves.