Roadside Assistance: Helping the Young When They Crash

Making mistakes when young comes with the territory, but the guidance of those who are older can help.
Roadside Assistance: Helping the Young When They Crash
For young children, small mistakes are common. As they grow and make bigger mistakes, we can still be there for them. (Biba Kayewich)
Jeff Minick
I’ve a special secret children ought to know It’s about the little mistakes you make as you begin to grow If you make a mistake, you shouldn’t start to cry Mistakes are not so bad, and here is why
Oh everyone makes mistakes Oh, yes they do Your sister and your brother and your dad and mother too Big people, small people, matter of fact, all people Everyone makes mistakes, so why can’t you? So warbled Big Bird years ago on “Sesame Street” after Mr. Hooper spilled a glass of milk, and it’s a song kids need to hear. Breaking a lamp while kicking a soccer ball indoors, taking a spill while running down a staircase, forgetting to take a stuffed animal to school for show-and-tell—these are learning lessons for the kindergarten and pre-K gang.
But that line about “little mistakes” acts as a qualifier regarding our blunders. For a teenager, and for the rest of us, little mistakes are as common as grass. Johnny, for example, still forgets his school assignments; only this time it’s his algebra homework instead of a toy bunny.
But what about the consequences of big mistakes for the young? The error in judgment, like taking on a whopping loan to pay for a degree in theater arts? The gradual slip into drug or alcohol abuse? The abrupt jump into adulthood for a pregnant 17-year-old girl?
To these calamities, “Mistakes are not so bad” no longer applies.

Finding Help and Hope

For the young, making mistakes—some of them life-altering—comes with the territory. Teens and early 20-somethings are still feeling their way into the adult world, leaving home, going off to school or tackling a real job, making new friends, and setting off on adventures. When some of the decisions they make go south, they’re left standing in the wreckage, aghast at the mess they’ve created and not certain what to do or where to turn next.
For young children, small mistakes are common. As they grow and make bigger mistakes, we can still be there for them. (Biba Kayewich)
For young children, small mistakes are common. As they grow and make bigger mistakes, we can still be there for them. (Biba Kayewich)
This is when many young people could use the presence and guidance of an older person, someone who’s driven the uncharted roadways of pain and chaos. After all, the chief difference between the 19-year-old college sophomore and her 70-year-old grandmother is the canyon of experience and knowledge separating them. That teenager is only beginning to build her bridge across this chasm, while Grandma has left a necklace of girders behind her, beams forged from a lifetime of living.
If she has a friend in her grandmother, that young woman knows that if she messes up, she can count on Grandma for help and counsel. The rest of us—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, coaches, and mentors—may also find ourselves serving as a port in the storm for a young person in trouble. Here are a few tips to help make that encounter as meaningful as possible.

Bring a Sense of Peace to the Table

My friend Anne is a wise woman, the mother of four children and the grandmother of several more. When I asked her how she might handle a grandchild who had royally goofed up and who had come to her seeking advice or a shoulder to cry on, her answer surprised me.
“Before saying anything,” she told me, “I think it would be a good idea to say the Serenity Prayer to myself.” She paused, then added, “You’d want that sort of serenity before anything else.”

Listen and Learn

A heart-to-heart conversation with a university student who’s devastated by a cheating boyfriend or a talk with a young man who’s just been fired from his first job should necessarily be a one-sided conversation, meaning your main task is listening. Ask questions as needed for clarification, offer comments if they seem appropriate or desired, but otherwise let the young person in pain do the telling while you listen. It’s healthy for them, and it brings you up to speed on their problem.

Avoid Making Victims

As they recount the disaster they’ve either caused or suffered, keep in mind that you’re only hearing part of the story. Your young friend who was fired from his job may blame his employer while putting himself in the best possible light, but you can bet his employer would have another tale to tell.
Sympathize with the young, but unless it is otherwise clear, don’t make them out to be martyrs. That approach only enables and perpetuates a defeatist frame of mind for the future.

Offer Suggestions Rather Than Advice

We think of advice and suggestion as sharing the same meaning, but there’s a subtle difference that can be crucial when counseling the young.
In the article “Giving Advice Vs. Offering Suggestions,” Gabrielle Gatta writes: “What does it mean to not give advice and instead offer suggestions? It means that instead of saying ‘you should do this or that’ from a place of superiority, that you come from a place of curiosity and share your experience or whatever you’re inspired to connect on based on the other’s expression.”
As many parents of teenagers know, young people can become prickly when told what to do. We’ll be far more effective when we heed Ms. Gatta’s recommendation to bring curiosity rather than superiority to the table. We can also tread lightly in the conversation by using phrases like “Have you considered this approach?” or “Let’s think of some alternatives.”
A gentle suggestion will deliver a lot more punch than “Do this, or else.”

Remember Your Past

This one can be tough for some people, but when we’re trying to help a young person in distress, we can better perform if we keep in mind the dumb things we did in our younger days. Whether we share our spotted past with a grandson or a niece is optional, but we should always keep in mind the pratfalls and foolishness that are a part of our personal history. Recollecting our mistakes brings a healthy dose of humility, tempers our judgments, and gilds whatever suggestions we may offer.
If nothing else, memories of our failures, some of which still jolt or embarrass us, should cause us to pull off the busy highway of life all of us are traveling, and assist that young person in need of repair.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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