Parents, What Can You Do When You Feel Helpless?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsI heard a wailing child baby. I was looking out my bedroom window to locate the sound and soon the scene unfolded in front of me.

A young father was pushing a stroller, and the child in it was twisting and turning and reaching for him while she screamed at the top of her lungs. He reached down to pick her up. As he gathered her in his arms, she continued to flail, throwing her head back, kicking and screaming.

I saw the look on his face, and it reminded me of how helpless I felt in those moments when my child was inconsolable, out-of-control, crying, or writhing in emotional or physical pain.

At times like this, a parent can feel desperate.

A parent can also feel overwhelmed, scared, and even embarrassed—certainly powerless—to control or comfort their child.

For some parents, these feelings of helplessness can turn to anger, at themselves because they can’t figure out what to do, or anger towards the child because they might assume the child has it within his/her control to behave.

There are also times in a parent’s life when feelings of helplessness lead to despair and desperation.

Infants and babies can cry inconsolably, and because they are not yet verbal, parents cannot use any form of logic with them. They can use soothing tones or hold and snuggle the child so they feel enveloped in the strength of their parent’s arms. For some children, this is calming, and for others, the opposite. Some children become even more desperately out of control, apparently not wanting to feel confined.

Parents can do the checks for physical needs: hunger, thirst, a diaper change, or pain of some sort. Those become the easy fixes because the child’s distress has an explanation which sometimes can be quickly addressed.

As children get older, sometimes they are able to use their words to explain why they are out of control. Sometimes what they say makes sense. Other times it might seem like gibberish.

What about a temper tantrum?

I recently watched 4-year-old fall down on the floor in a kicking and screaming temper tantrum. She did not want to sit at the table for dinner as it interrupted play with her new doll. “I’m not hungry! I don’t want to sit at the table!” she wailed while the adults in the room looked on, feeling surprised and uncertain about what to do.

Fortunately, after an initial moment of helplessness, both mom and dad remained very calm but appropriately assertive. Eventually, mom walked her upstairs to get her away from the whole situation.

Just by changing the scenery and by having her parents confidently assert their authority and power by physically removing her, she quickly calmed. Within a few minutes, she was able to join everyone at the table. That quick regrouping to address an issue assertively can be an antidote to helplessness.

Sometimes parents feel helpless because life’s circumstances have negatively impacted their sense of appropriate power and authority.

This can happen in divorce situations when a parent fears that a spouse may be hoping to catch the other parent doing something they can use in court.

The negativity associated with contentious custody battles can contribute to a parent’s feelings of helplessness. Children, of course, can sometimes figure that out and realize they have an inappropriate amount of power because one or even both parents are walking on eggshells, fearful of being accused of inappropriate parenting.

In this world of social media, parents can feel helpless to protect their children from the cruelty of other children.

Parents can feel helpless when children are hurt or sick. They can feel helpless when other children are hurting, teasing or bullying their child.

How many of us parents have felt helpless when one of our adolescent children is crushed when the love of their life walks out on them?

I don’t think there is any single thing parents can do to eliminate those moments of feeling helpless.

Sometimes, it requires a kind of patient acceptance children have meltdowns that might be the result of their developmental age and stage, that they are not being purposely difficult or inconsolable.

Trusting that maintaining a loving presence and accepting that a child may need to cry, flail, melt down, or be temporarily unreachable is the choice that can allow a parent to feel calmer in those challenging moments.

Seeking out friends and family members who can offer words of encouragement for a parent’s difficult and helpless moments can lessen feelings of loneliness that often accompany such emotions.

We have to remember that we can’t measure our health as a parent by how happy our children are at any given moment.

I wish I had been outside when that dad was trying to comfort his wailing baby. I would have smiled at him and said something like, “Wow, it can be so hard when children melt down like that. Sometimes all you can do is pick them up and hold them like you are doing.”

We may be powerless to stop a child from struggling, but we do have the power to be a source of comfort and encouragement to parents as they navigate through feelings of helplessness.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you recall times as a parent when you felt helpless? What specifically was your child doing? What other feelings did you have in addition to feeling helpless? How did you cope?
  2. In your experience as a parent, what have you learned about feelings of helplessness? What has helped you lessen those feelings? Who do you turn to for support and encouragement when you feel helpless?
  3. What would you want the parents and caregivers in your life to understand about helplessness? How can you be a source of encouragement to them when they feel helpless?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute