THE BLOG
09/22/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

How Would You Parent If You Weren't Afraid?

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A middle school girl approached a classmate in the cafeteria. Their friendship was as old as the school year: two days. Could they sit together at lunch? she asked.

"Sorry, I have plans," the other girl replied, and bounced away.

In the car on the way home, the rebuffed girl recalled the scene while her mother listened, aghast.

"Did that ruin your entire afternoon?" the mother asked.

"Not really?" her daughter answered, watching her carefully.

"It would have ruined mine," her mother told me on the phone after the incident. "But I knew I blew it. It was like my kid was saying, 'Should I have been more upset than I was?'"

Families making the transition to middle or high school know it can be an emotionally exhausting time. Students often feel like they have entered a foreign country, with alien norms and ramped up challenges. Parents watch anxiously from border control, hoping their children will find at least one solid companion early on.

Yet it is parents who are sometimes more rattled by the social bumps in the road than their children. Unlike our kids, we're lugging around our own childhood baggage (I am no stranger to this: I wrote a book inspired by my own bullying experience).

As parents, many of us repurpose memories of childhood struggle into anxiety about our kids' futures: will they be lonely? Miserable? Unsuccessful? Eyeing them in the rearview mirror, or as they drop their book bags by the door, we scan their faces for the answer to one question: "Were you happy today?"

But our kids don't always interpret their challenges in the same anxious way we might. What you see as catastrophic, your kid may only feel mild angst over or even shrug off. How we talk to our children about their day at school is often the moment when clashing perspectives are revealed -- and where we have a critical opportunity to bolster our kids' resilience.

The way we frame a conversation is as important as what we say, says psychologist Michael Thompson, author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies. He advises parents not to "interview for pain," or pose questions that nudge a child to remember the most trying parts of an experience. A question like "Was anyone mean to you today?" can reinforce a child's sense of victimhood, suggesting the parent is not interested her coping strategies or ability to adapt. It can signal a child to orient herself to rejecting cues in the environment, perhaps blocking out more positive stimuli, so that she will have the "right" answer prepared for her parents later on.

The language we use with children as they face adversity has the power to influence emerging coping skills.

Dr. Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania professor and a father of the increasingly popular field of Positive Psychology, argues that parents can effectively imprint an optimistic or pessimistic perspective on their children. He teaches parents to adopt an optimistic "explanatory style" to help script children in their approach to challenge.

Toddlers who fall down while learning to walk often look first at their parents' faces for cues on how to respond. When the parent gasps and looks fearful, the child cries and gives up. When the parent remains calm and encouraging, the child soldiers on. Riding in the car, my friend's daughter was reading her mother's face to gauge how upset she should become.

Interviewing for pain is a well-intentioned strategy to get a child to open up. It should not, however, be mistaken for empathy; it is one thing to feel your child's pain, another to create it out of whole cloth. Asking kids about what went wrong can offer parents a seductive but false sense of control: if you elicit news of a wound, perhaps you can heal it. Most children approach transition with a healthy degree of anxiety, as they should. But they lack the memories and feelings that may surface for us.

In my own parenting, it has helped me to pause at anxious moments with my daughter and ask a question before speaking or acting: How would I parent if I were not afraid? That is, if I knew that despite whatever was happening, she would turn out just fine, what would I say and do?

My strategy nearly always changes in that moment. It is a way to pull back from my own historical worries and anxieties about my child's future, and instead, to stay in the moment with her. When parents practice this kind of mindfulness, we can delay judgment, approaching transition with greater openness and optimism.