More on a Child’s Need for Discomfort

By | September 6, 2013

In my last post I mentioned that children need to experience discomfort in order to learn how to find comfort. Leah, who maintains this blog, suggested that I elaborate on that statement, as it could be misinterpreted, and it is an important topic.

It must be, as parents regularly ask me for guidance on just how much they should or shouldn’t provide and protect. Just last night a woman called who is a dedicated and loving mother: she is with her children full-time, she wears her babies (keeps them next to her body), she practices elimination communication (the diaper-free method), and she responds right away to her baby’s needs rather than letting him cry.

All went well until he turned 3 1/2. He began to fight with his friends, no longer wanting to share his toys or his space. And he got possessive over his mother, attempting to shoo other adults away so that he could have exclusive time with her. What went wrong?

Actually, everything was going right. He reached the developmental stage where it was time to expand his world by using trial-and-error to start developing sophisticated relationship skills and a worldview that included others.

Prior to this time, he led a very straightforward cause-and-effect life: he’s hungry, he gets fed; he’s scared, he gets cuddled. However, the more mobile he became, the less his mother was the be-all and end-all of his existence. Where he relied on instinctive relationship skills as a baby, he must begin developing cognitive relationship skills as a toddler.

Here is where parents–especially first-time parents–often get tripped up. If the child is going to transition from a nurturing mother to a nurturing world, his mother needs to start letting him venture out into that world–and experience the discomforts inherent to that world. If she continues to mother him into his 2s and 3s as she did when he was a baby, he will end up feeling deprived and victimized, and cope by developing controlling and self-protective relationship patterns.

Here’s what happens: baby has learned to stand with support and is ready to take his first step. Mom is right there to take his hand, catch him if he falls, and lavish praise upon him with every successful step he takes.

What a beautiful picture, we tend to think. Only it’s the worst thing we could do for our child at that age. We would actually serve him better by acknowledging the times he falls. In the outside world–the one he is in training for–he would learn best by falling than being held by the hand. When he falls, he finds out what doesn’t work–perhaps the most important part of the learning experience. At the same time, he is recharging himself with the desire to get up and try again.

When he is held by the hand, he learns that he is not adequate to do it on his own. Right here is the beginning of what could be his endless struggle with codependency. Lifelong behavioral patterns are firmly established in a child by age 3, so what we do and don’t do at the time of that pivotal first step is critical.

If continuing to mother a child in the manner described above is so growth restricting, why do we do it? Because we are an achievement-oriented, rather than growth-oriented, society. When we encourage and reward the goals our children achieve, they get the message that what they accomplish is more important than what they learn on the journey.

So what is a poor parent to do who finds it so hard to not reach out when his/her child is in distress? There’s the codependency red flag–seeing the situation as your child being in distress. If we were truly considering our child’s well-being, we would be grateful for the situation and see it as a learning experience–we would sit back contentedly and watch it instead of jumping to the rescue.

Our child’s first steps are a metaphor for all of his first steps toward expanding his world beyond mom and establishing a nurturing relationship with the greater world. We can best support the process by helping our child to help himself, by allowing him to explore and stumble without intervention–while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on him.



One caution: our child’s learning experiences need to be naturally occurring. Setting up scenarios might seem to be helpful, where in actuality they are just another expression of codependency. Besides, children soon figure out that they are being manipulated, and that is the lesson they get from it rather than acknowledging us for our noble intentions. How often have you heard, “it’s for your own good,” and just seethed at the blatant lack of understanding and empathy the statement implied?










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