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Age-Appropriate Suffering

“Suffering has value.”

I heard this said the other day, and it struck me as an unpopular truth.  While on the one hand, none of us want to suffer, and parents generally are quite loathe to see their children suffer, I don’t think the right path is to eliminate suffering altogether.  I use the phrase “Age-appropriate Suffering” with parents a lot, when we are talking about where to put healthy emotional boundaries.

Imagine that your child is angry and sad (even furious and outraged!) that you won’t let her have the thing she wants.  Most of the time, this is an example of age-appropriate suffering.  Feeling pain, anger, sadness, disappointment, or even resentment is an okay experience for her to have.  It sucks being told no!  We can let her have those feelings (while still not letting her have the thing.)  And, the way we set ourselves apart as compassionate parents is that we can both allow her to experience this age-appropriate suffering, AND we can be present and compassionate for how she is hurting.  I can both be the source of your pain* (because I said no) and the source of your comfort (because I look upon you with love and compassion and understanding.)  I believe that Kristen Neff said it well: “Hold pain with love.”

It’s not healthy to prevent our kids from having “age appropriate suffering,” and in fact when they do–and especially when it’s done with love and support and witness and understanding–it becomes a powerful positive force for growth.



* Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that abusive behaviors or dynamics are not what I am talking about here.