Success and Failure

I had quite a fruitful conversation with a mom a couple of weeks ago, and thought it might be worth sharing. I have not seen this family for a while and the mom reached out to me because her youngest daughter, who is a middle schooler, was having an “emotional meltdown” for the first time. On the phone, the mom sounded very concerned and was eager to come in to discuss how she can help her daughter.

Based on what I knew from working with this family in the past, this young girl excelled in every area of her life. She is basically the star. She goes to a very prestigious school.  Her grades are at the top of the class. She gets along with everyone. She is excellent in gymnastics. She plays tennis and piano. She is a fantastic swimmer. According to her mom, everything has always come easily and naturally for her daughter without her having to put much effort into anything. Her parents described her as an easy-going person who enjoys life and is always happy. They are very proud of her.

When we met, the mom looked so sad and explained that the reason she wanted to see me was because last week her daughter broke down into tears and told her that she feels like a failure and that she is not good at anything anymore. Hearing her daughter talk about herself that way not only surprised her, but scared her. As I helped her reflect on the past few months, she reported that she has noticed a couple of changes in her daughter’s behavior but thought it could just be another phase that would pass. This young girl has become increasingly indecisive and is afraid to try anything new. She gets nervous easily and assumes that she will not do well on her tests. She also complains that her friends don’t like her.

Seeing the Truth

I asked a lot of questions, trying to get a sense of what was really going on. When working with children, I feel that it is important to get as much information about family dynamics, recent relationship changes, transitions, or losses, and how parents may have handled the situation. The mom was open with me that she tried many ways like consoling her, reasoning with her, telling her to study and try harder, explaining that her thoughts were not true, and even going to school to talk to her teacher and coach. The mom looked so sad when she told me that nothing seemed to work. Her daughter ended up crying harder and told her that she didn’t understand and she wasn’t listening to her. I saw tears coming down her face as she tried to express how heartbreaking it was for her to see a happy confident child turning into a fearful and unhappy girl. “It is scary. I don’t want to lose my happy baby,” she said.

We talked about ways she could have a conversation with her daughter about coming to therapy. And, these are some of my initial suggestions I shared with her that day:

Just listen and validate: Be a good listener. Children need to feel their parents are listening to them. It is important for parents to stop and listen to a child’s thoughts and feelings without trying to give any suggestions, explanations, or hurry to fix the problems.

Build resilience: Every child needs to be given the opportunity to fail and experience loss and frustrations. Teaching your child not to give up on difficult tasks and have perseverance are two important life lessons.

Praise effort: Parents need to send the message to children that their hard work and effort matter more than the ultimate result. It is important to have fun and enjoy the process and not focus only on winning or the fear of losing.

Time Management: Overscheduled children can suffer from stress. Go over your weekly schedule together and try to balance work and play. Also, include downtime into schedule. Everyone needs quiet time to relax his/her body and mind.

Pick your passion: Focus on what your child enjoys doing rather than trying to encourage him/her to do everything or what you think he or she should be doing. It is hard for any of us to be good at something if we are working on many things at the same time.