It’s no secret that emotional strength is a highly sought-after quality. As a mental health counsellor and a parent, I often encounter this wish to make children mentally and emotionally strong. I hear parents say, “Don’t cry, be brave.” “Don’t get so upset.” When emotions spill over, it seems as though they quickly need to be mopped up.
The general consensus seems to be that unless the child struggles emotionally, s/he will never learn to tolerate distress or manage negative feelings. Children do need to experience challenges to help them grow. However, the science of attachment shows us that emotional resilience is built through connection and co-regulation and not through dismissing feelings.
Being connected means paying close attention and being open to your child’s experiences without necessarily having to fix things for them. For example, a child comes home from school irritated because a classmate teased her. Instead of empathizing, we might react quickly, getting defensive and protective of our child. On the other hand, we might brush it off trying to ensure the child brushes it off too. “It’s not that big a deal, ignore it.” We might minimize the issue. “Don’t take it seriously.”
When I talk with children about what avenues they use to cope when upset, they often say well I’d rather not tell an adult because they might see my issue as really small and silly. They might not take it seriously. I’ll just tell my friend because they’ll understand. (Note that understanding seems to be what the child is looking for.)
We adults tend to approach this issue of building mental strength cognitively, meaning we use logical thinking to help the child feel better and come out of tough spots. Going back to the teasing incident, we may try offering various perspectives. “Maybe your classmate was in a bad mood himself? Maybe someone teased him so he took his anger out on you?” or “he probably didn’t mean it that way, try not to take it personally.” “Did you do anything to him? Why did he tease you?” We might advise the child not to bother about things like this because they are part of growing up. It happens. It’s normal.
Though the intention is to shift the child’s thinking and thus mop up those bad feelings, our nervous systems don’t function like that. We need to feel safe and understood in order to tolerate difficult feelings. Advice deals with the child at the cognitive level, not at the emotional level.
Advice lands in the child’s system as, ‘you should not be feeling upset’. It’s invalidating. Think about it for yourself. If you are upset and someone gives you a myriad of explanations, would your distress melt away? No. On the contrary, you feel misunderstood and the anger and defensiveness stays sitting in your body. On the other hand, what if your friend gives you a myriad of reasons to feel MORE upset? They’re now fuming on your behalf! That response wouldn’t soothe you either. In fact, you might even regret opening your mouth! You came to find relief and now you have to assuage your friend instead.
The greatest relief a human being can feel is that of being wholeheartedly understood and acknowledged by another. It’s a powerful, visceral experience that quiets and soothes the nervous system. When a child feels validated, it empowers them to deal with their feelings. THAT is what helps build emotional regulation and resilience. When children are allowed to express without being blamed, minimized, dismissed or problem-solved, they’re given the safety and strength to move on.
Here are some ways to help your child feel deeply understood:
- Listen first. Try not to formulate your response in your mind while they’re talking. Let your child talk and freely express strong feelings. Try and keep a neutral face even if you’re shocked! Your child is reading your facial cues and titrating what they say based on what they see and what they sense from you.
- Avoid jumping in with judgements especially when they share feelings you think are wrong. E.g. “I hate so and so.” “So and so is messed up.” Express curiosity, let them blow off steam. Remember, their feeling of safety and being understood enables them to move on more quickly than us telling them they should not say those things, feel those things.
- Name and acknowledge what they’re feeling. “That must have hurt your feelings.” Pair this with an arm around the shoulder and look straight into your child’s face so they know you’re mentally there.
- Think of yourself as a container. You are there to hold the child’s feelings, to contain them in the safe space of the bond you have with them. How do we learn to tolerate distress? By having it tolerated for us. Scientists call it co-regulation. When we are growing up we have difficulty regulating our emotions. We need an external regulator to help us, usually a parent. The repeated experience of the external regulator gradually gets internalized and a child learns to self-regulate. This blueprint gets patterned in the brain and serves the child lifelong.
- When you do this consistently, your child will come to you to express their feelings. We all know at some point in life they will face disappointment, failure and setbacks. Through your containment, full attention and understanding, you are building in your child the ability to go through those ups and downs. This approach tends to create better results than telling a child, “be strong, don’t let these things get you down.” “You’re older now, you shouldn’t feel bad about…”.
- Avoid instructions like, “don’t be angry” or “don’t be sad”. We may want to make them hurry up and feel better, but phrases like these don’t erase the emotion, they just erase the expression of them.
Most importantly, make sure you have some downtime for yourself as a parent. Many experiences can push us out of our window of tolerance leaving us with precious little bandwidth to truly attune to our children. When you take time to unwind, breathe and slow down, you are in fact increasing your capacity to co-regulate and connect with your child.
Nisha holds dual masters degrees in Clinical Social Work and Child Development. She works at Legacy School as a Mental Health Counsellor, Play Therapist and Life Skills teacher for the secondary school. Her two adventurous boys ages 5 and 8 make sure the back pocket of her handbag is always filled with interesting stones, feathers, and other random things they collect.