How to parent through tough times

Psychotherapist Liza Finlay offers advice for parenting during a family crisis.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Every family will, at some point, have to endure a crisis. Whether a death, an illness, a divorce, or financial hardship, tough times happen. And when they do it falls to us, as parents, to help our kids navigate stormy waters.

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But how? Here’s what I want you to do…

Don’t be afraid of feelings
As parents, our instinct is to protect our kids from the brutal realities of the world. We want to shield them from anything that might hurt them. But guess what, we aren’t doing them any favours. Life is going to bring pain, hurt, disappointment, failure. You win some, and you lose some. And they’re going to need practice at dealing with the losses. So, overcome your parental instinct to brush away tears, shush anger and placate disappointment. When we do so we send kids the message that their feelings are wrong, unimportant or inconvenient—that “bad” feelings are things to be avoided. Instead, validate them, and help them use their emotions to grow empathy and a deeper understanding of themselves and their world.

Get inside your child’s head
Perception is everything. No two people make sense of a situation in the same way. We simply don’t draw the same conclusions. So, before you can figure out how to help your child deal with an experience, first figure out what they’re experiencing.

Let me illustrate with an example. Recently, my mother-in-law died. At the time of her death, I was away at a conference. I was tortured with worry about my kids having to grieve this loss without me. When I got home, I found my then-eight-year-old remarkably at peace with the death of his grandmother, but slightly troubled by the pending plane travel (he’s a nervous flier). Deal with what is, and not what you think might be.

Practice self-care
Before you can help your child, you have to help yourself. It’s hard to practice good parenting when you’re fatigued, anxious, stressed or depressed. You may not be able to solve the problems facing the family, but you can find a place to park them for a while. Vent to a friend, escape to a park, bury yourself in a good book—do what you need to do to restore some perspective.

Read more: 17 self-care tips for solo parents>

Find some help
Depending upon the severity of the problem, professional assistance may be warranted. Family therapists, like me, are trained to help both individual family members and the family as a whole. Sometimes that means giving kids a private place to unburden themselves without fear that they are adding to their parents’ worries. It could also involve helping kids make better sense of a loss or trauma and to find their resiliency. A therapist can also help families in crisis process change and start fresh, providing parents with the tools they need to be the best parents they can be, even in the worst of times.

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