Parents strive to support their children through life’s ups and downs but sometimes it’s hard to know how to help. The following suggestions are based on research from the evidence based Triple P Positive Parenting Program.
In order to raise resilient children we need to first understand what emotional resilience is. It is the ability to manage feelings and cope with day-to-day disappointments, as well as major life stressors. How naturally resilient a child is depends a lot on their temperament, but it can also be taught and encouraged.
When a child’s temperament varies greatly from his or her parents it can leave parents at a loss as to how to respond. If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s big reactions to seemingly small issues try and remind yourself that your child’s intense feelings are very real to them in that moment even if you can’t relate.
Teach how to recognize, understand, and accept feelings
A key part of emotional resilience is teaching children how to recognize, understand, and accept feelings. Very young children often struggle to identify the different feelings that wash over them and an important first step is for parents to teach children to identify their emotions. This can be done through reading picture books about feelings, discussing the feelings of characters in shows or stories, and role playing different facial expressions and body language.
Teach how to express feelings appropriately
Beyond identifying feelings we need to teach our children to express their feelings appropriately. This takes practice, practice, practice. While you might feel like a broken record, remember you are building neural pathways and that takes time. Those discussions are a worthwhile investment.
- Start by asking your child how they feel. Whenever possible stop what you are doing and give your child focused attention.
- Once they’ve spoken, summarize back what they’ve shared to make sure you’ve understood them correctly and to help them feel heard. (e.g., It sounds like you felt left out and hurt when you saw Sarah and Tessa leave without you).
- Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t try and talk them out of their feelings or minimize their feelings.
- If your child seems open to it, encourage them to be curious about others’ feelings and perspective.
Help to develop coping skills
Help your child develop coping skills. By teaching our children the steps of problem-solving we can reduce being overwhelmed and encourage a sense of competency. Notice if your tendency is to fix the problem for your child. While that might be what is requested, remember it’s important that your child learn how to function independently.
- Help your child clearly identify the problem.
- Brainstorm possible solutions and review pros and cons of each.
- Pick one approach and try it out.
- Afterwards review how the solution worked and make necessary adjustments.
Be a good model
Expressing your own feelings appropriately is also key. This is where most learning happens as children are always taking their cues from us. The more you can vocalize your own feelings rather than storm around the house, yell, or withdraw, the better role model you’ll be for your child.
What NOT to do
There are several “parent traps” that can accidentally encourage emotional dysregulation.
- Talking too much about your own feelings and experiences. Thoughtful, short examples from your own life can be helpful; over-sharing can result in children feeling burdened.
- Over-reacting to small injuries or conflicts or dwelling on a child’s upsetting experience.
- Showing too much interest in a child’s feelings to the point that they get excessive attention when they are sad or upset.
- Encouraging avoidance.
- Not giving sufficient attention when your child is content, coping effectively, or being courageous.
Encourage optimism and a positive mindset. Optimistic children are more likely to let things roll off their back and not be easily discouraged.
- Model optimism for your children. Recognize that what you say in front of them, not only to them, counts.
- Help your child identify helpful and unhelpful ways of thinking about a situation (e.g., all or nothing thinking, “shoulds”).
- Encouraging early awareness of how thoughts affect feelings is a powerful step in building a resilient child. Encourage your child to develop a short personal mantra to fall back on during times of stress (e.g., “I’ve got this” or “I am strong.”).
- Before pointing out what your child could have done better or differently focus on what they did well.
- Build in family traditions that encourage appreciation and gratefulness (e.g. at dinner have each family member share something they are grateful for that day).
Recommended children’s books
“Ahn’s Anger” and “Steps and Stones” by Gail Silver
“Cloud’s Best Worst Day Ever” by Kimochis
“When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry” by Molly Bang
“Feelings” by Aliki
Rebecca Wood, LCSW, is the Director of Parents Place in Marin County. She is trained in the Triple P Positive Parenting Program and has a particular interest in helping families learn concrete parenting strategies so parents can focus on enjoying their children and not just managing them. Rebecca holds her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bates College and her MSW from the University of Michigan, where she focused on interpersonal practice with children, youth, and families. Most importantly she has been “schooled” by her two daughters (ages 7 & 5). She can be contacted at [email protected] or by calling 415-419-3609.
This article first appeared in the Southern Marin Mothers Club Crier.