Wrestling with your emotions when your child is hurtingWritten by Wendy Kittlitz
Some of my toughest challenges in life have been when my children are hurting. I think it’s safe to say that many of my friends and acquaintances would say the same. Collectively, we’ve watched our kiddos face everything from life-threatening illnesses to mean-spirited bullying, from being left out of friend circles to serious mental health challenges, from out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken engagements and miscarriages to hurting marriages. Some have helped parent grandchildren while others have buried children lost to drug abuse and suicide.
When our children hurt, we hurt deeply. What have I learned through this?
First of all, I have learned to take great comfort in the assurance that God is the first parent. Every parenting challenge and every painful experience we and our children face are nothing new to him. Not only has he experienced it all before us, but he is present with us in each situation, hurting along with us. It was never his plan for his children to experience pain, but it is the reality of the fallen world, redeemed trough Christ.
God understands my pain and that of my child. Unlike me, God could prevent some of my children’s painful experiences and I sometimes wrestle with why he does not. I’d like to think I could prevent some of my children’s hard times too and perhaps I could, if they would always do everything I suggest! But like me, who does not always listen to and comply with my Father’s design, neither do my children always listen to my wisdom. I find myself in good company. That gives me perspective.
Second, I have learned to be honest with myself about my feelings about my children’s difficult experiences. Sometimes I feel angry – at them, at myself, occasionally with someone else (a bully, a teacher, a helping professional, even my spouse). I need to be aware of that and not be in denial. I also need to be careful what I do with my anger as there is a great temptation to lash out and do harm with my words and actions. I need to take a few deep breaths and engage my “thinking brain” before I react.
Sometimes I feel guilty. Is my children’s pain my fault? The what-ifs are loud. What if I had been a better parent? What if my husband had been a better father? What if I had spent more time praying for them? What if I had taught them better? Read scripture more? Been a better example? Not failed so much as a person myself? Moved them closer to family? Hovered more? Hovered less? Taken them out of situations sooner? The list just goes on and on. I have found the only effective counter to this is to remind myself that I did the best I knew to do at the time and to forgive myself for imagined or real failures.
Sometimes I feel helpless. I remember sitting in a doctor’s office with a wheezing two-year-old, not realizing she was having her first asthma attack, but knowing she was struggling to breathe and frustrated that, like everyone else in the waiting room, we were told to just sit down and wait our turn. Sixteen years later we were sitting in another hospital, my daughter struggling just as desperately with another issue, knowing she had been put on way too much medication. What’s a parent to do? When we are at the mercy of things we cannot control, often the only thing we can do is pray.
Sometimes I just feel sad. When a relationship breaks down for one of my children or they experience a deep disappointment, there is an empathic hurt I often experience too. It probably triggers my own painful experiences, to be honest. When this happens, I need to be careful not to impose my own lenses of painful personal experiences on my children’s. This is their struggle, not mine. I take a step back when I realize this, allow them to feel their own stuff and try my best to empathize and support rather than relive my own trauma.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest feeling of all, is that sometimes I feel shame. I fear that others, maybe even my own kids, will think I am not a good enough parent – that I have failed in the responsibility God has given me. When that happens, my tendency is to become defensive, which is a posture that focuses too much on me and not on what I should be focusing on. I become preoccupied with the impact the situation is having on me, rather than on being there for my child. When racked with shame and moving into a defensive stance, we often become immobilized.
So what wisdom is there for hurting parents? What helps in times like these?
When the Apostle Paul was dealing with many hardships, including an unnamed “thorn in the flesh,” he reports that God told him “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The grace of God will carry us and our children through the valleys of pain and loss. It is in these times that we become increasingly reliant on Him instead of on ourselves. When we are angry, powerless, sad, ashamed, hurt and fearful, He will be sufficient. Our walk with Him will deepen as we depend on Him more. My prayer life has been strengthened by personal challenges; my trust in Him runs deeper as I experience His grace in these circumstances; my conviction that I cannot do life on my own is firmer than ever.
We join with Paul then as he affirms that “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Be encouraged, even as you hurt along with your child. Through the testing of our faith, we grow in the grace of God and our kids are kept in His care. I rest easier when I remember that he is my co-parent.
Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.
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