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‘Suck it up princess!’ An approach that has been used to encourage children to be brave and get over it, is not supported by research to boost resilience. Emotions are there to help us and serve an important function. Both adults and children alike are more able to move on, once they have felt and processed their emotions. By spending time acknowledging our emotion, what has provoked it and listening to the message that it is sending us, the left (language) and right (emotion) sides of the brain are better able to settle.
In the final part of our 4 Ways to Boost Resilience in your child blog series we will look at managing emotions.
It is vital that a child’s emotional expression is listened to and validated. You can help them if their response to their emotions needs some tweaking! It is perfectly ok for a child to feel frustrated because they don’t get what they want, but it is not ok to throw their toys across the room as a way of managing this feeling.
We have a choice in how we manage feelings or behave in response to them. It is our job as the ‘parent-coach’ to thoughtfully shape and mould our child’s response.
Help your child to name their feelings. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel talks of the strategy ‘Name it to tame it.’ Research shows that by helping our child to name their feelings we are better able to move on.
For example, in response to an aggressive outburst from a toddler, to help them name their feeling we might say, ‘It looks to me like you are feeling jealous of the attention I am giving your big sister. Are you feeling a bit jealous?’
Help your child talk through something upsetting that has happened so they get chance to integrate and make sense of it. Another of Dan Siegel’s research findings, is that our future behaviour can be influenced by our past experiences whether we are aware of these past experiences or not.
An example of this was a 5-year old who was having an out-of-character tantrum about going to his football training, which he normally loved. He was distraught, yelling and refusing to go, no matter what encouragement and bribes were offered.
Unable to provide any explanation other than ‘I don’t want to,’ he was asked if there could be something he was worried about at footy.
‘No, I just don’t want to go!’
Then his parent remembered that a few weeks earlier he had been hit in the face by a ball, ‘Is that what you are worried about?’
‘YES, I’m scared it might happen again!’
Some quick problem-solving around what to do if the ball was coming straight at him, and he was out of the front door down to training in a flash!
Particularly when something upsetting happens, children may wish to go over and over the details. Patiently listening, whilst helping them fill in information about how they were feeling, and what happened next, can help to do this.
For example, ‘You were having such fun with your friends before you went on the slippery dip. You weren’t expecting the bump were you? What happened when you went over it? …And then when you got to the bottom you got a cuddle from Jill because you were crying, and then I came and gave you a hug too. It was a nasty shock. You didn’t get hurt and you are safe now.’
If it is a life-threatening or very distressing event that a child is struggling to process it is recommended to contact a Psychologist who works with children with trauma.
Send a message through your words and actions that whilst behaviour can be unacceptable, emotions are not – they are normal and healthy.
For example, ‘I can see you are worried about your first day at school, most people are nervous on their first day. It’s ok to be nervous, but I still expect you to be polite to the teacher,’ or ‘It’s ok to cry, let me give you a hug.’
In this instance you may want to refer to our personalised Starting School Adventure Story and expert tips. The story includes specially designed activities to help get your child ready to start school.
In an ideal world we would always face feelings as they arrive. Sometimes as an adult we need to push them away (eg. before we go into a business meeting), but it is always healthier to come back to them later (eg. once we get home). For younger children, in most situations it is ok for them to experience their feelings as they arise, but they can also need help to process them (expressing them through talking, play, drawing etc) or try to move forward (eg. distracting, soothing). Try Tippy’s Managing Feelings in a Healthy Way Poster for some ideas to help your child manage their distress in the moment.
Be mindful of your language in talking about feelings. By simply inserting the word feel, it sends the message to ourself and others that our emotions are transient (I feel sad in this moment), rather than permanent and fixed (I am sad).
Try to use this language in expressing your own feelings to your child, and if you find they are saying ‘I am sad,’ you may try responding with ‘Oh… You feel sad do you?’ or if this doesn’t work a more overt prompt to say, ‘I feel sad.’
Refer to the activities in our understanding feelings activity library for some more ideas on how you can do this.
We can strengthen a child’s resilience by paying attention to their self-talk. Optimists take full credit for their success and tend to blame external or transient factors for any failures. Watching the family’s language around self-talk can make a difference in how negative our feelings are when something goes wrong.
For example, I am likely to feel much more grumpy, if when I spill my coffee down myself I say, ‘I am stupid;’ as opposed to, ‘Whoops, I just did a silly thing!’
When you first see your child after school or work, spend time reconnecting before doing any interrogating! Notice the times when they are the most chatty, and try and make yourself available to talk at this time of day. If they are reluctant to answer questions, let them know you are interested to hear how they are going, how their day was, and ask older children when’s a good time for them to share.
For example, children sometimes open up more once they are settled into bed; if this is the case, try to allow time for this before you expect them to go off to sleep.
Encourage a sharing ritual – often doing something together makes it easier to talk, eg. playing a board game, going for a walk, sharing stories whilst driving, colouring-in/building Lego together for 10 minutes after dinner.
Share with your child appropriate information about your own day, feelings and history.
For example, tell them if you had a hurdle in your day, how it made you feel and how you moved past it; tell them stories from when you were at school yourself.
Try to steer clear of adult-only topics like an argument with your partner.
Sharing at the dinner table, what didn’t go so well today for you and how you managed it
After school checking in with your child how their day went by asking questions creatively
Examples of questions that might engage your child are:
- Did anyone in your class do anything naughty /funny today?- Tell me two truths and one lie about your day at school today and I will try and guess the one which is not true
- What is something that happened at school today that you are still thinking about?
- If there was one thing that happened at school today that you wish could happen again, what would that be?
- What was the most difficult part of your day today?
Sometimes children learn not to share. They learn not to share through our repeatedly unhelpful responses when they have shared in the past. Some reasons children have learned not to share their feelings are when repeatedly faced with
- An overly emotional response from a parent (eg. an angry outburst from a parent when a child says that other kids have excluded them from their playground games)
- An invalidating response from a parent (eg. ‘Well that’s just life. You just need to be thick-skinned and move on;’ ‘It’s ridiculous to worry about baddies! How are they going to get into your bedroom, climb up the drainpipe?’)
- Rather than unconditional love, experiencing conditional love – given only when your child is doing/saying exactly the right thing
Healthy unconditional love might look like, ‘I am upset that you slammed the doors earlier, your behaviour was very disappointing. You do know I love you so much – even when I am disappointed with your behaviour, I still love you.’
- Sending the message to your child that you are frequently judging them; they can then feel unsafe to share incase they feel you are going to judge them negatively.
For example, instead of listening to what happened and reflecting back their struggles, jumping-in to problem-solve. ‘It was terrible what Harry did, but why did you not just tell the teacher? Why did you just do nothing when he said that?’
- A lack of breathing space – if they share a difficult feeling or experience and you immediately try and jump in and fix, sending the message you cannot tolerate sitting with their difficult feeling or experience
If you have more than one child, or even for the same child on a different day - you may find that what works for one may not work for another. Try and notice what works well, and be flexible, observe their cues and if it’s not working, get creative, mix it up and try a different approach.