Recently a parent asked me how I would differentiate between these concepts. And when it is ok to suggest another idea to the child, and when instead we should wait longer.
By observing how children play and problem solve in our RIE® Parent-Infant Guidance™ Classes, parents soon learn that the very common method of distracting young children may not be the best solution.
Let’s watch: Susie is playing with little cups and metal lids. She assumes that the lid must fit the cup, has many attempts to connect them and becomes visibly frustrated with the items. In this situation, it may be very tempting to distract Susie with another toy or activity.
Why it is not the best solution? If we use distraction often, Susie will soon recognize what we are doing. And the message she will get from the distraction will be “it is not ok to be frustrated or sad”, “having strong feelings is bad”, “to fix a problem I need grown up”, “when I have strong feelings I should push them away and distract myself.”
Instead of distraction, I suggest waiting and observing first. Then I might support Susie by narrating what I saw. Narration will help her process what is happening and recognize her feelings. Think of how many people avoid doing a task when they believe they may not succeed.
Let’s watch: A little boy Wyatt was trying to bite the corner of the shelf. I got closer, “Hey, Wyatt looks like you want to bite.” I paused for a few seconds. “I am not too sure how strong this shelf material is… I wonder what we can find to bite that is more safe and feels good on your gums.” In this situation, I picked up the chew triangle and offered it to the boy. In this scenario I recognized Wyatt’s need, I was honest about my concern, I moved as slow as I felt the situation permitted me and I redirected his action to a chew-triangle.
Let’s watch: Today I placed a new play tea set on the shelf: four small green cups and a teapot. Three children were interested in exploring the set. One child picked up the teapot and
Let’s watch: Mark was working hard, he wanted to pull out a red cushion from the large straw basket. The cushion was heavy and the basket’s handle was in the way. Mark continued working hard. I described what he was doing and then I said, “I will get closer…” After I got closer I suggested maybe I can hold the basket while he pulls on the cushion. And I did. Mark was able to pull the red cushion out. In this situation, I physically helped, but first I waited, then I sport casted and only then did I start with the least help as possible.
Let’s watch: Ricky cried at the end of class. He didn’t want to go home and stop playing. His mom acknowledged these feelings and aligned with what this must feel like for him. Then she added that they will come back next week to play and that the toys and friends will be here.
Later this parent asked me if I thought it was a distraction from the real feelings Ricky was experiencing at the moment. She said, “I know for me, personally, I always appreciate the bigger perspective and think about the things that I have to look forward to. This makes a difficult time a bit easier to bear. But, with a child, perhaps does this does not allow him to truly focus on the feelings he is experiencing in the moment.”
These are thoughtful questions. I think it partly depends on our goal: are you trying to support and reassure or rescue and avoid the conflict, sadness, and frustration. Also, it depends on how fast and with what kind of energy you provide reassurance. And what if the child is not ready to be receptive of the reassurance? You might want to start with active listening and connect with his emotions first (right part of the brain); once you feel connected you might add perspective or a logical explanation (left part of the brain). It looks like this mother was in tune with her child. She allowed him to process the disappointment and was at the same time supportive, reassuring and warm.
Slow down and try to re-think our urge to distract. Many “negative” challenging situations can be turned into great opportunities to learn. Let’s provide guidance and support to our little ones.
Photo credit : Michel Bibichikov
Wishing you all the best in the difficult yet exciting journey of parenting!