This one is for every adult who’s watched in frustration as a parent or child struggled in some way. Perhaps you’re a caring neighbor who sees the single parent next door work two jobs in order to provide for her kids. Maybe you’re a grandparent who can’t stand to watch a grandchild try again and again to get the right piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Or you might be a friend who sees a parent at his wit’s end figuring out how to support a child’s more peaceful behavior.
If you ever find yourself a witness to such struggles, here is an idea for you from Dr. Jeree Pawl, a clinical psychiatrist who specializes in working with young families: Don’t just do something, stand there!
When I first heard this idea from Dr. Pawl, she’d already powerfully influenced my own approach. But this jarring notion of hers set me on my heels. What? Just stand there when people struggle?
Here’s the thinking behind it: Most of us respond to the distress of others by wanting to fix the problem. We hear an SOS, and immediately break out our tool boxes, determined to give advice or offer direction to support the other person. This well-meaning approach may relieve our own distress, but it will likely do little to support the “object” of our efforts.
Parents and children alike can’t really change from the advice of others. Our ideas may be helpful for them to frame their own thinking, but ultimately, any progress has to be worked out in the laboratory of their own experience.
But just as advice is often unhelpful, the benevolent presence of someone who cares is usually tremendously helpful. Both parents and children benefit exquisitely from a kind, interested person hanging in there with them, listening without judgment, and offering them time to find their own solutions.
It’s not always easy to do, but I’ve noted that the most effective friends, neighbors, teachers, and grandparents I know are those who generously support parents and children with their close attention, listening ears, and invested time. It seems to me you can make a great difference by simply “standing there.”
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