Emotional spring cleaning helps develop grit

By Annie Fox:

Longer days deliver more light through my windows. The better to see the doggie nose prints. And now it’s much harder to ignore all the crap I’ve been dumping on my desk for the past year. Time for serious spring cleaning – not just to clear the clutter, but to gain fresh perspective on my life.

Nothing screams “Perspective transplant!” louder than a major disappointment. When kids are stymied by a setback, helping them clear the emotional clutter eases their suffering and encourages the development of resilience and grit.

A parent’s life experience enables us to see beyond our child’s poor grade on the math test, the botched goal attempt, the break-up, the rejection from the college to… the Bigger Picture. Teaching kids the long-view perspective helps them confidently take on life’s inevitable curve balls. But before we bore them with “This too shall pass,” give a kid in the throes of an upset a chance to vent and throw a self-pity party. Expressing emotion is healthy, but long-term dumping is not. What’s the difference?

From the dumpster: Your eighth-grade son comes home from a field trip in a foul mood and launches into a rant about the “jerk” he had to sit next to on the bus, the terrible lunch you made, the tour guide who yelled at him, the fact that his best friend can’t take a joke and how the girl he likes told everyone she thinks he’s gay. He finishes with “My life sucks!”

This is unadulterated dumping. Kids in the midst of these storms sound desperate for help, but they don’t really want it. They just want to dump. Try to help them and they’ll turn on you.

If we want to teach kids resilience and compassion (for themselves and others), we must show them our own resilience in the face of setbacks. We must also show them compassion, even at their most whiny and unlovable moments. An appropriate response to the 8th grader’s dump might be something like this: “Sounds like you’ve had a really bad day. When you’re a little calmer, I’d be happy to help you resolve some of this. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.”

In this case, it’s about truly listening, being sympathetic and letting your child know you get that life is unfair. (If “fair” means everyone is dealt the same hand and treated in the same way, then, yes, life is definitely unfair.) Your child will calm down, and when he does, share your own intimate understanding of grit and the Bigger Picture. Tell your version of “I didn’t get the lead in musical.” Everyone’s got at least one of those. Make sure you include what you learned. I learned that setbacks are often bundled with opportunities and when we get out of our own way, things usually work out.

Now excuse me, gotta wash windows.

Annie Fox is an internationally respected parenting expert and family coach. Find her at AnnieFox.com or on Twitter @Annie-Fox.