When Our Child is Suffering

February 3, 2017

There were a few days last fall when both of my children were away on overnight school trips. The first childless evening, I found myself disturbingly… happy. Happy, calm, relaxed. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t I supposed to feel lonely? Unsettled by the preternatural quiet of the house? Why did it feel so darned good to have my kids gone?

I thought for a minute about what felt different, and the answer came quickly. I wasn’t listening for slamming doors or raised voices. I wasn’t anticipating complaints about dinner. I wasn’t preoccupied because someone came home from school dispirited. In short, I wasn’t worried about one of my kids being unhappy.

It’s not easy for parents to watch kids suffer – or even struggle. Parenting experts warn us that we need to let our kids skin their knees and bear the consequences of forgotten homework. Doing so teaches our children resilience and grit. But I also wonder about deeper, more essential wounds that we sometimes must watch our children bear. What is the right way to approach these crises?

Sasha started treatment with me after her husband abruptly announced he wanted a divorce. Admirably, she quickly landed on her feet and managed the separation so that it had the least possible impact on her kids. Sasha’s fourteen-year-old son hardly skipped a beat. Her eleven-year-old daughter, however, was a quiet sensitive child who took the loss of her father and the life she had known hard. Melanie cried often, wanted to sleep in her mother’s bed at night, and had frequent nightmares. Once, when Sasha asked her why she was crying, Melanie responded philosophically between sobs, “I remember being little, and I know I’ll never be a child again!”

Sasha’s family expressed alarm at Melanie’s sadness, and even encouraged Sasha to have her evaluated for medication. Sasha confessed to me that she had a different instinct. “Wouldn’t it be wrong to try to take her sadness away?”

Melanie’s tears and philosophic reflection about endings were an intimate introduction to her inner life. So long as those feelings didn’t become disruptive or dangerous – so long as she was able to go to school and wasn’t feeling suicidal – they were healthy and normal. She was learning about the deep, tender places within herself. Strong emotions fully felt are relieving and clarifying, but they also serve to enlarge us. Through such powerful feelings, we have intimations of our own inestimable vastness. Becoming “acquainted with grief,” we can become intimates with our soul.

When we can embrace suffering, it becomes soul-making. Our heart expands, our capacity for empathy is enlarged, and our ability to experience beauty and awe increases. Humans understand this instinctively, and this is perhaps why initiation rites the world over often require of the initiate that he or she suffer. Beatings, mutilation, and scarification are common aspects of tribal initiations. Fear and confusion are also often present. Passing through these trials – suffering them – tests the young person, and opens him or her up to the deep meaning of existence. Most of the trials faced by young people in our culture don’t involve scarification or beatings. However, adolescence can be a difficult and painful passage for many. As a parent this can be particularly difficult to watch.

Susan had always felt particularly close to her youngest son, who shared her quiet, intellectual temperament. When Jason was 17, he fell in love for the first time – and he fell hard. When his girlfriend broke up with him a few months before graduation, he was devastated. He stopped showering, his grades plummeted, and he seldom left his room. Susan was worried. When Jason asked if he could forego a planned family vacation to hike the Spanish camino alone, Susan was understandably hesitant. Given his fragility, would it be wise to let him test himself in this manner? A part of her longed to see him brush himself off and have fun with his cousins that summer, but another part of her recognized that walking Spain’s ancient pilgrimage trail was an effort on his part to make meaning of his suffering and allow it to work on him. With some trepidation, Susan allowed Jason to go to Spain. He not only survived, but also connected with the universal substrate underneath his personal experience of heartbreak. He became a passionate reader of poetry, a love which sustains him many years later.

When we focus too much on our children’s happiness as an indicator of how they are doing, we may miss an opportunity to let them experience the transformative potential of suffering. Many of us can remember learning what really mattered to us because of an experience of initiatory suffering. Perhaps an illness or disappointment awakened us to a sense of personal destiny. The art of parenthood lies in part in knowing when suffering genuinely needs to be alleviated or addressed with a real-world solution, and when it is an aspect of a descent into oneself that brings with it the possibility for transformation. Certainly, it can be very difficult to make this judgment call. It can be even harder to bear witness to our child’s distress. Doing so will likely bring suffering for us as well, which may in turn offer opportunities for our own growth.

Originally published on PsychCentral.com.