Helping Children and Young People Improve their Emotional Resilience


What is resilience and can it be taught?


The common misconception with resilience is believing that ‘If I am resilient then I do not become angry or upset and it means I am happier’. I believe in the latter, it can make us happier, however being resilient does not mean we never become angry or upset. Imagine resilience is a ball; the bouncier the ball the quicker we can bounce back from our upset. If the ball has no bounce then it may take us a while to calm down from a situation. Resilience is the bounce and it can be taught! Resilience is taught through developing self-awareness and learning emotional intelligence.


How to tackle attention-seeking behaviours from children


A lot of teachers and parents often question the ‘realness’ of a child’s behaviour or emotional outbursts and wonder if it’s ‘just for attention’. The truth is I believe all our behaviours (even as adults) are to gain some form attention and this is all a part of being human. Our basic human needs, according to Anthony Robbins, are to feel:

1. Certainty
2. Variety
3. Connection
4. Contribution
5. Significance
6. Growth

So when you think a child is attention seeking – can you think of one of these needs they are potentially craving? Once you work this out, you can find positive ways to meet these needs, then moving forward you can proactively meet these needs, which will reduce the unwanted behaviours. If we address the emotional needs of children, then we short cut the drama and get right to what is really going on. But remember you’re human too, and you have needs too, so check in with your own needs and see how you can fulfil them for yourself too.


Emotionally intelligent parenting and teaching


Tuning into your child’s emotional needs will begin to help you understand how they may be feeling and you can use this to help you empathise and connect with them. When a child is in an emotional state they can struggle to understand what they are feeling. We, the adults, can help by beginning to name feelings for them in a curious way, I often use phrases like “you seem angry, is that how you are feeling?” Or “I am curious about how you’re feeling, you seem angry but I wonder if you there are feelings of sadness too?”

The aim of these questions are to empower them to name their feelings, not to name the feelings for them which is why we always we have curiosity. Next, as the adult, you can respond empathically to their feeling, it’s much easier to understand what it feels like to feel sadness or anger compared to trying to understand what their feeling of ‘upset’ is like. This way you can use language that will connect with what they are feeling.

If you are struggling with what to say, try to imagine a time when you felt similar distress or that particular feeling (angry, sad) and connect with those feelings, what is helpful for you to hear? Connect with the feelings, not what has happened to cause the feelings. If we make a judgement about feelings in conjunction with the event this will create disconnection. For example, don’t judge the emotional distress against the event and think the event is too trivial for their upset. Attend to the distress.


There is no point in reasoning with an emotional child


This is not because they are being difficult and don’t want to listen to you. It is because they’re body would have produced many hormones in response to their emotional reaction and their brain is now only responding from the emotional part (back of the brain). In order to understand and have logic we need to engage our frontal part of the brain and when we are in an emotional state we are not using this part of the brain. Instead of focusing on conversation, bring the child’s attention on to the here and now. You could engage in something physical like going for a walk and /or talk them through the 54321 grounding exercise:

LOOK for 5 things you can see around, say them in your mind our out loud. You could include colour, like finding 5 different colours in the room, or finding 5 green things e.g.
LISTEN out for 4 different sounds, these can include your own breathing and sounds you can make yourself.
FEEL or touch 3 things around you, this can be your own clothes, hands etc.
SMELL 2 things around you, if you can’t move around to smell then think of some of your favourite smells.
TASTE 1 thing, this can be as simple as tasting your own tongue – can you still taste your last meal?

This grounding exercise is a great tool for anxiety too, it helps calm the body and bring the mind into the here and now.

If you think the child needs space to calm down and it is safe to leave them, time alone can help them calm and they may need to change environments if there are still triggers for their upset.


Begin to listen with the intention to listen not to fix the situation


Once the child is calm and ready to talk, encourage them to express their feelings by asking questions that will help them reflect and open up. Change your intentions from wanting to ‘rescue and fix’ to ‘enabling’ them to express. Listen with the intention to listen, try not to fix or give advice, simply keep asking questions and check you understand what they are saying by repeating back to them what they are saying. Actively listen and show that you are with your eye contact and body language.


Empathy not sympathy


When a child is upset, sympathy can feel like pity, consider empathising instead because they need to know you understand them. Change your communication from ‘I feel sorry for you’ to ‘I feel with you’ without making it about you. It is sometimes easier said than done and true empathy takes a lot of practice. Reflect on situations regularly to improve your empathic skills.


Tracey Dangerfield
Creative Therapist and Lead Mental Health Trainer
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