Nothing causes a parent more pain than seeing his or her child suffering. We want to take the hurt ourselves and “make it better.” When our child is being smacked emotionally by friends, teachers or coaches, we want to absorb the hits. We want to intervene whenever we possibly can.
And yet, sometimes parental intervention can actually make things worse for your child. How do you know when to step in and protect, or stand back, biting your lip, and letting your child work things out for himself, growing in the process?
To begin to know when to intervene, and to what degree, the best thing is to gather as much information as possible. Say, “Tell me what happened.”
This may actually be easier to do with a preschooler than with a 9 or 12-year-old, who is more likely to give a hint of a problem and then clam up. Don’t insist a child talk about something when he doesn’t want to; it feels too much like prying. Say something like, “When you’re in the mood to talk, let me know.” If that fails, try engaging her in an activity to foster camaraderie and thus encourage a conversation.
Parents who under-react typically don’t take their children’s issues seriously enough, something seen in families where both parents work. Parents typically intervene too much in sibling issues. Unless they are hurting each other, give them time to work things out on their own.
Here are some guidelines for when to intervene:
Your child’s health, safety or well-being is at risk.
He’s frustrated and about to give up.
She asks for legitimate help.
He withdraws: “I never want to play with Tim again.”
You see predelinquent or illegal behavior.
He’s already tried on his own and it didn’t work.
Just because you identify that help is needed doesn’t mean you should solve the problem, however. Before you go further, ask these questions: How close is he to resolving the problem on his own? Does she have the tools to do it (verbal skills, for instance)? Does she know where to start?
Instead of intervening for your child, your best help is often to give your child the coping skills he or she needs to take care of the problem himself. Role play the situation to help your child come up with a witty, deflective comment, or learn the words he needs to apologize or open the conversation with his teacher or the friend who has pushed him outside the circle.
Now you’re becoming a coach, saying helpful things like, ”Maybe there’s another way to look at that? What do you think you could do next time?” and cheerleader, “I have lots of confidence in you!”
We all want to feel we have some control over what happens to us. You can help your child by intervening when he is threatened, and by using those situations to teach him or her how to handle those threats on his or her own.
Suggestions For Parents:
When you might intervene for one child may not be the same point at which you intervene for another.
In the school-age years, children are often better able to handle interventions from the same sex parent.
Steps to help your child take: articulate the problem, think of solutions and possible outcomes, choose one to attempt. You can do this even with preschoolers, as long at you do it in a way that’s age-appropriate: “I see the two of you can’t agree. What do you think is happening here? Oh, so you both want the same toy? What do you think you should do?...”
Always prepare her for the possibility that the solution she tries may not work – “If it doesn’t, we’ll think of something else” – but that sometimes, nothing works. When you reach a dead end, be sure to process that: “I’m frustrated, too, but at least we tried everything we could.”
Intervention that tries to wrest total control from a child almost always backfires, especially with teenagers. If a situation feels beyond you (drugs, sex, alcohol, theft), seek professional help.