10 practical tips for helping your kids become emotionally resilient
Those big feelings, like disappointment and anger, are hard to take. They are hard enough for adults who understand emotions and have rational minds to deal with them, but for kids who have not developed this level of rational thinking, they are much trickier and often cause significant angst in families. It’s our job as parents to help our children recognise their feelings and not “rescue” them from the hard ones, but help them develop their own strategies for dealing with them. Every feeling comes for a reason.
- Anger is a clue that something is wrong and we need to make it right again.
- Fear or being afraid stirs up our fight or flight instinct and we need to take it seriously to change a situation.
- Sadness is a time to retreat from the world and take time to heal from the event that has caused the sad feeling.
- Loneliness helps us to reconnect to others and live our lives together.
- Tiredness tells us to stop, take a rest and recharge the batteries.
- Anxiety is a sign that something is a threat or a fear and we need to sort it out.
The positive ones are also there for a reason. Being excited, happy and calm allows your body to release the “happy chemicals” such as dopamine and endorphins to promote a relaxed state. Also known as the feel-good chemicals, these have a calming effect on the brain and you can let your body relax and do its job.
However, the negative feelings are often the strongest, certainly for kids, and we need to help them find strategies to bounce back.
Children need time to work through their own feelings and find some solutions to their problems rather than have us jump in all the time to try to fix their negative feelings.
By design, the cycle of life is meant to be up and down. If you were always up you would have the impulse of an addict, always searching for the next high. If you were always down, you would be depressed. You wouldn’t be able to feel the ups and release those happy chemicals.
It’s these two states that we want to help our children develop strategies for, and by teaching them how to manage their emotions they will ideally be able to balance the ups and downs of life.
Ways to help children navigate their emotions
- Remind them that all feelings are OK — validation is key
It is OK to cry, it is OK to be angry, it is OK to be sad. It’s what we do with these feelings that will have the big impact. One rule we established in our house when the children were little was, no matter what our feelings, we needed to “respect self, respect property and respect others”. This gives boundaries around what is expected when children feel angry or mad.
It’s also important to validate the feelings first before you react with your own thoughts, using a statement like, “I know you are feeling angry.” This helps a child feel reassured that the feeling is normal and we all experience these feelings.
- Help them label their emotions
Children are born with emotions. Babies who are just a couple of hours old have already experienced being hungry, tired, content, calm and fulfilled. By about six weeks they can smile and react to others, and then they start to laugh, giggle and get excited by flapping their arms and moving their bodies. One of the cutest memories I have of my four-month-old daughter is her excitedly bouncing around in her Jolly Jumper when her daddy came home.
What we are not born with is effective ways to label or control our emotions. The part of our brain that controls emotions is not fully developed until the mid-20s. Through behaviour modification and societal norms, we shape and modify a child’s reactions to their feelings. Having a tantrum is not generally accepted when they feel angry. Crying excessively when they are sad is also not generally accepted. As parents, we are quick to put behaviour modifications in place for these reactions, but we also need to help kids label the emotions they are feeling.
Validation works well by saying, “I know you are angry” or “I know you are sad about …” They can then recognise and label their emotions and know what they are the next time they experience them. A lovely book to read to help kids label their emotions is In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, by Jo Witek.
- Thoughts affect feelings, which affect actions
A well-researched and widely used psychotherapy model is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The underlying premise of CBT is that our thoughts affect our feelings and our feelings affect our behaviour and actions. This is a powerful message for kids and one worth trying to help them understand, especially by the age of nine or 10.
Use the metaphor that feelings are like bubbles. Label the bubbles as you blow them and see if they can keep the bubble going — eventually they pop.
A classic example where this could apply is when a child is scared of the dark. Talk about the “thoughts” your child is having in the dark (there are scary monsters), then the “feelings” they are having (I feel scared and frightened) and the action they are taking (that’s when I run to your bed). Now change the scenario using positive thoughts with them.
Talk about the positive thoughts they could have (there has never been a monster so there is not going to be one tonight), positive feelings (I feel OK because I know a monster won’t come tonight) and the action (now I can go to sleep). When children can have more realistic thoughts, they will have positive emotions and positive behaviours. Help them develop positive self-talk.
- Don’t try to “fix” their feelings
A couple of weeks ago, I set homework for my class where the children had to say a time when they felt sad or angry and how they had calmed themselves down. One little boy wrote that he had kicked his ball too hard and it went over the fence and was now lost. After an hour of tears, sadness and eventually a tantrum, the dad went out and bought him another ball.
I’m sure we can all relate to this story. Yes, this dad fixed the problem for this little boy, but a more valuable lesson would have been for him to feel the disappointment and come up with his own idea for “fixing” the problem. Eventually, he may have really searched for the ball and found it or asked the dad if they could go out and buy another one, or found a way to cope without the ball.
Children need time to work through their own feelings and find some solutions to their problems rather than have us jump in all the time to try to fix their negative feelings. Disappointment is one of our kids’ biggest teachers and, if they are taught to manage it, they will have that skill for the rest of their lives.
- Help them identify strategies to move from negative feelings to positive ones
Once your child knows the difference between negative and positive emotions, it’s great to help find strategies to move from one to the other. One way I have seen work is creating a “feelings ladder”. With your child, draw a ladder where the bottom half of the rungs show negative emotions such as sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated and lonely. The top half of the rungs show the positive emotions including happy, excited, joyful, positive and optimistic. Around the ladder, children write down how they plan to “climb the ladder” when they are feeling negative. Prompt them with strategies they can use such as bouncing on the trampoline, cuddling with Mum or Dad, reading a book or talking to a friend.
It’s also OK for kids to see you when you are not calm and composed all the time, so they can see that all feelings are OK and everyone feels them.
If the negative feelings are happening often, a calming corner somewhere in the main area of the house could help. This may have soft cushions, music on an iPad, access to a Smiling Mind meditation, books or anything the child uses to calm themselves.
- Slow down the pace
When we are tired, our feelings radar is challenged and so are our kids. We don’t have the same go-to strategies to react to the big emotions and our feelings are exuberated. We live in a fast-paced society where we are racing from one activity or task to another and our kids live it with us. They get tired. We get tired. Sometimes as a family we go through a week or two when we are all tired and in a constant state of being angry, tired, sad and frustrated.
Slow down or stop. Have a day at home together or a slow weekend. Let your kids know you are going to have some downtime together to regroup and recharge. Allow them this time to just be. Let them know it’s OK to take the time to slow down and recharge.
- Feelings don’t last forever
When kids are feeling the big emotions, it seems like they are going to last forever. Remind your kids that we feel many different emotions in a day and sometimes we can feel two at the same time. Feelings come and go. Some are big and scary or big and exciting and some are just part of our day.
A great activity for this is the Feeling Bubbles metaphor from the book Creative Ways to Help Children Manage Big Feelings, by Dr Fiona Zandt and Dr Suzanne Barrett. Use the metaphor with your child that feelings are like bubbles. Some are big and some are small. Blow some bubbles to watch the big bubbles and the small bubbles. Then compare bubbles to a positive feeling like happiness. Label the bubbles as you blow them and see if they can keep the bubble going — eventually they pop. Repeat the same exercise with sadness. Feelings come and go just like bubbles do.
- Show your own feelings
Parents are not robots. In the fast pace of life we live with our children it’s easy to forget we are also human and not perfect when it comes to managing our emotions. You are actually the best role model to show kids what emotions look like and how you deal with them. Tell your kids when you are feeling cranky and let them know your own strategies to be able to move from negative to positive emotions. It might be as simple as making a cup of tea to calm down or going for a walk; share your strategies with your kids.
It’s also OK for kids to see you when you are not calm and composed all the time so they can see that all feelings are OK and everyone feels them.
- Help kids recognise their body triggers
The fact that our bodies often feel the worry, anger or disappointed before our thoughts and actions do resonates with kids. They generally are more in tune with their bodies than adults are and we can help them harness this. Their hearts might beat more quickly when they are scared. They have butterflies in their tummies when they are worried. One of the children I have worked with said before she got angry she could see red and felt a volcano bubbling up in her tummy that was about to explode. Allowing kids to tune into their bodies will help them anticipate what is about to happen and put strategies in place before they do.
- Show kindness
The part of human brains that allows us to have rational thought, our pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed until the age of 25. That’s a long time to make irrational decisions and emotional choices, so when your children are crying and having an angry outburst, be kind. Remember that they haven’t developed their reasoning power yet and you have. To do this, you need to have filled your own love cup and have the patience to deal with the irrational outbursts, so take time out and do what you love, too.
Just like teaching kids how to read and write, they often need to be taught how to manage their emotions. This will ideally provide them with their own strategies to navigate the ups and downs of life and help reduce the high rates of anxiety and depression currently being experienced in the Western world.
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