By Deborah MacNamara (September 25, 2021)
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Childhood is full of wounds. Not just the cuts, scrapes, and bruises of explorative play; kids’ feelings are routinely hurt, whether from rejection by others, to name calling or being excluded. They fear the dark, are nervous about going to school, or feel apprehensive about an upcoming test. Their world is full of big feelings that can overwhelm them. As parents, it can be confusing to know how best to support our child’s emotional needs. Some experts tout the benefits of letting your child fail, while other experts assert the need to protect them from getting hurt at all. As such it can be a complicated dance to figure out how to help prepare our children to face hard things and be prepared for the adversities that lie ahead. How do we cultivate resiliency and resourcefulness in our children?
Resiliency isn’t a set of skills to be learned, a frame of mind, or affirmations to state, and it doesn’t come from a worksheet or trying to talk yourself into happy feelings. Just like the body knows how to heal a physical wound with support, emotional wounds can be faced too—and we, as parents, have a role in the healing.
The key to cultivating resiliency lies in understanding how our emotions work. Stress is part of life, and as humans we were built to face it. Adversity is not something we can avoid, but we can become better equipped to deal with it. Young children are developmentally vulnerable, and are not able to deal with things on their own (yet), but as they mature they should become increasingly able to face those hard things. This raises the question: How can we provide our kids with the support they need as they grow?
Futilities are everywhere for a young child: the games they can’t win, the minds they can’t change, or the attention from parents they must share with other siblings. Kids make mistakes, can’t always get what they want, and can’t avoid transitions. These may seem small to us in comparison to our grown-up challenges, but these are the developmentally appropriate challenges for a young child.
When kids are faced with things they cannot change they often get frustrated. Frustration is the emotion that drives the engine of change—it can force someone to change their mind, result in a different verdict, or provide a respite from facing reality. But sometimes, even frustration can’t change things, and instead, the child is the one who needs to change. When the emotional system registers that the desired effect is not going to happen, and moves to let go of the demand, sadness and disappointment replaces those frustrated and mad feelings.
It is here that we can help our child to cultivate the resilience they will need on the road ahead. Resilience comes from feeling the disappointments in life and knowing you can survive them. Confidence comes in knowing you can make it through adversity, not from avoiding it altogether. The key is not to be afraid to go on these emotional journeys with our kids and to invite the tears that are needed.
Invite tears and sadness
While we know that sometimes we can’t always get what we want, and that it’s okay to feel sad or disappointed, it is a whole other story to lead our children there. It means we will have to find room for their tears and upset and be patient as we witness the emotional fallout from the futilities we present (like no more screen time), and walk them from mad towards sad.
We need to avoid getting in the way of their sadness by distracting them, telling them to cheer up, or expecting them to just pick themselves up and move on. We don’t need to be their emotional cheerleader in order to avoid the sadness that is there, and we don’t want to prevent the let-down of big emotions that are uncomfortable. These emotions are going to be what carries them through the hard times in their life. Messages such as, “It’s hard; I am here; this isn’t what you wanted; I get that you are frustrated” can help the child face what cannot and will not change.
Our kids can’t get to their sadness if we are not supporting these emotions. If they are met with unkind words, shaming, or punishment, then a child’s mind can press down on these emotions and prevent them from being felt. If we can’t feel it, we can’t name it, nor can we understand our emotional world. We need to invite our child’s emotions in and experience their expression. The best way we can do this is by coming alongside their feelings.
Coming alongside emotions
If we see emotions as things that need to be expressed, then we are better able to communicate to a child that they are safe to express themselves. Ensuring your child understands that whatever they are feeling, and however they express it, doesn’t result in you withdrawing and avoiding closeness with them is key. It doesn’t mean we agree with how they want to deal with their feelings, but it normalizes the feelings, acknowledging that it is hard to not get what we want and scary to face things that are new. Sitting with an uncomfortable emotion is one of the hardest, and bravest, things we can do as humans. And kids can’t face their emotions alone yet, which is why our relationship to them matters so much.
To come alongside a child’s emotions is to communicate validation that feelings exist, and must be expressed and felt. Finding our words for our feelings is important, and we can help that by offering names to match their emotions. This invitation for feeling is at the root of resiliency and the emotional journey that must be faced.
While we may look at the broken toy or hurt feelings as small things, they are big things to kids as they learn about their world. If we can help them face the little things that don’t work, and activate the feelings and sadness that may need to be felt, then we will have prepared them well for what lies ahead. The greatest gift to our kids is not the knowledge that things work out, but that when hard things happen, that they will have the confidence to handle these things too.
This article first appeared in EcoParent Magazine, Fall 2021.