All My Kids Do Is Complain. Can I Ever Make It Stop?

A dad with kids who are bored, lonely, and incredibly needy asks The Goodfather if he can just tell them to suck it up.

Originally Published: 
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Dear Goodfather,

My kid is bored, wants to see her friends, and she’s complaining all the freaking time. I’m trying to teach her a little resilience in quarantine — to learn how to be bored and lonely, to figure it out. but she seems to be declining. They’re complaining more, acting out, and I don’t know what to do. I’m there too! I know she doesn’t get that, but don’t we have to all just suck it up right now?

Bored in Boise

Before we really get into it, I feel we need to have a shared understanding of what resiliency actually is. Resiliency is not the ability to take a beating. It’s not being thick-skinned or battle-hardened. It’s not having the ability to “suck it up.” Are those good qualities to have in a crisis? Sure, if that crisis requires crossing multiple New York boroughs while battling rival gangs sporting outrageous wardrobes and a variety of frightening weapons. They may even keep you alive long enough to make it back to Coney Island. But we’re not in a Warriors situation (though, man do I want to watch that movie again). And frankly, survival isn’t that satisfying if you come out the other side of adversity as an emotional and psychological wreck.

You see, that’s where resiliency actually matters.

Resiliency is the ability to weather hard times and do so in a way that invigorates recovery and healing after a crisis. Resiliency requires emotional intelligence to move through unpleasant feelings and approach crisis with a positive mindset, humor, curiosity, hope, and purpose.

I understand that you want your kids to be able to handle a sound psychological thrashing from our cruel and fickle universe. But isn’t it even better that after coping with the shit, they learn from it, grow from it, and move on with grace? That’s what resiliency does.

Importantly, resiliency can be tough to develop during a crisis. If you’re already in the depth of hard times, building new emotional and psychological tools often takes a backseat to the simple act of coping … or not coping. To put it another way, people rarely learn to swim when they are drowning.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t help your kids learn resilience during a pandemic. You can. But you should not expect them to simply acquire the skills through some strange force of will. That’s not how it works. Oh, how I wish it did.

Believe me, I would love more than anything if my boys to have the emotional skills to process this very strange and uncomfortable moment that COVID-19 has placed us in. I would much prefer them to be self-directed and hopeful than sad and needy. But, goddamn — I’m also incredibly sad and needy.

They are children. Their experience of the world is limited by their years. Their cognitive abilities, their ability to reason is still very much developing. To ask more of them would be to ask them to live and process beyond their years. It’s an impossible ask.

I’d like you to sit with that for a moment. Just kind of hold that understanding in your head. At your age, as an adult, your experience has given you a set of tools that your children do not have. You also have resources your children do not have. You probably have co-workers, with whom you communicate and commiserate on the regular. You have goals and daily tasks that keep your mind occupied. You have alcohol to numb you. You can stay up late and zone out on whatever reality show atrocity Netflix has served up for us this month. You have the wherewithal to make certain choices about how you spend your time and money, though they may be a bit limited.

Now consider your children. They have no control over anything in their lives right now. They do not have friends to play with. Their communication with kids outside the home is likely relegated to crowded Zoom classes. They are limited by bedtime and screen time rules. They have fewer coping mechanisms to access. But they do have parents. And like it or not, you are the rock to which they are clinging during this viral tempest.

I’m actually really thankful for your question because I need to remind myself of this too — our children are having unique experiences that we adults may not be capable of understanding, and they have a unique set of needs. But here’s the cool thing: the resilience that you’d like to teach them? You can help them develop it by meeting their needs.

One incredible quality that resilient people have is the ability to recognize their emotions and allow themselves to feel those emotions. Kids aren’t particularly great at this, but you can help. You can ask them how they are feeling and then name those feelings. You can help them feel more secure by helping them understand that it’s completely reasonable to feel the way they are feeling in these hard times. Sometimes it helps just to be heard and acknowledged.

Once you have named the emotions you can talk about ways to move forward. Perhaps there is time to set up a Zoom call with a friend or relative to address some of the loneliness. Maybe you need a good wrestling session with them. Maybe you can talk about all the things that you are grateful for during this time or talk about ways your family can help neighbors feel better. Maybe you can joke about how well you’re all getting to know each other. I, for instance, can now identify each family member by their farts alone. Who knew that was a skill I’d ever be able to acquire? Thanks, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2.

The idea is to help them start approaching the pandemic with positive emotions. But that means that you need to do the same. We all need to do the same, really. And the more we practice the skill of resilient people, the more resilient we will become.

This whole thing had been a pain in the ass. And as a parent, you can only give as much as you’re capable. Please know that if your kids are safe and loved, you’re doing your job. But they’re doing their job too. They are being kids. Sometimes we have to remember that it’s hard to be a kid. Particularly when the world has experienced a seismic shift.

If you ignore every bit of advice I’ve offered to you above, I hope that you will do one thing that is sure to improve your situation: lean in to love. More than anything. Hug your kids. Be grateful for their smiles. Cherish the moments when they exceed your expectations. Amplify the moments when they play in peace. Just lean in to love.

As long as we can keep doing that, we will not fail.

I believe in you. You’ve got this.

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