As we all know, to help a child grow we must make it possible for him or her to experience success. It is therefore important to set expectations for children that they can realistically achieve. This of course requires attention to what we just talked about in terms of “knowing the child”. It also means that at times of stress, the caregiver must lower the bar. What a child is capable of in times of stress is different from what he or she is capable of when calm and comfortable. None of these points are unfamiliar, but caregivers often lose track of them when dealing with children.
Caregivers must also be prepared to help the child over the rough spots and to support the child’s initiative. This is more complicated than it seems at first glance. That is because when to help and when to encourage the child to try it on his or her own is not always clear. Complicating the matter is the fact that caregivers fall into patterns with children, patterns that are shaped in part by (usually out of awareness) the caregiver’s needs or by other demands of the environment. Examples include when the caregiver’s need to get ready to go to work in the morning makes it easier to dress the child than to help him dress himself. Or, the caregiver’s desire to hold the child close as she did when he was a baby in order to preserve a sense of intimacy that is no longer appropriate.
Another pattern is that of insisting a child “do it himself”, when the child actually needs some support in carrying through on the task. Examples of this situation are when the child has problems organizing the complex motor activities required in getting dressed, or when the child has problems maintaining his focus of attention. Even when the caregiver has repeated a pattern with a child frequently without success, it is hard for him or her to recognize that this way of doing things is not effective. This is especially true if the child is “hard to read”, or has a complicated mix of competencies so that he or she is very good at some things and surprisingly not good at others, such as is the case of children with uneven development. (Remember that traumatized children almost always have some degree of unevenness in development.) In these cases, it is excellent to have other caregivers offer their perspectives on the capabilities of the child. These alternative perspectives, whether offered by other caregivers in the home or by teachers, are valuable and should always be taken into account.
Finally, it is important to listen to the child. By “listen” I mean observe as well as listen to what he tells you. If the child continues to struggle, it is time to ask him what he needs to accomplish the task. Does he need your help? What kind of help? If he claims that he needs your help but that claim is at odds with your observation, you might continue the discussion – “Help me understand how you need my help to do X when I see you do it so well yourself at Y other times.” Or, “Let me watch you try it so that we can see where things go off track.” Or, “Would you have the same comforting feeling if you did this yourself and afterwards I gave you a hug?” Discussions such as these not only help the child with the task, but they also support the child’s initiative in that they encourage the child to look within and assess his own capabilities, which is a competence in itself. It also demonstrates to the child that the caregiver has an open mind, is willing to be wrong, can talk about these conflicts with the hope of resolution.