Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children. Our highly effective, problem-solving minds do a pretty good job of mitigating the risks of pain or distress by creating safety from problems that arise from the physical world. For example, holding their hand when crossing a street, putting a jacket on them when it’s cold, and making sure their seatbelt is buckled when taking a drive.
While fostering a safe and secure environment for children in which they know they will receive unconditional love and support is crucial for the development of healthy attachment and relationships, we must balance this endeavor with teaching children how to tolerate emotional discomfort.
If we utilize our same problem-solving minds to try and prevent exposure to pain or distress found in the non-physical world, namely, the world of thoughts, feelings, and memories, we may inadvertently be teaching them that emotional pain should be, and can be, avoided or controlled. How often have you heard a parent scold their child by saying, “Stop crying!”, “Don’t feel sad.” or any other number of attempts to control a child’s distress? We may thereby be setting our children up to have difficulty feeling pain or to have a low threshold for tolerating discomfort. In fact, the idea that we cannot control all of our internal experiences is one of the core principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (i.e, dropping the struggle against our experiences of discomfort that lay outside our control).
While parents may successfully protect their children from experiencing discomfort in the material world, attempts to protect ourselves and others in the emotional world are often not successful. In reality, uncomfortable situations and painful experiences are an inevitable part of life. At some point, children will experience the pain that comes along with the death of a grandparent, starting a new school, failing an exam, or losing a sports competition. And eventually, children will grow up to be adults who have to cope with painful experiences such as getting turned down for their dream job, the termination of a romantic relationship, or managing financial stress.
Instead of shielding our children from all sources of discomfort, we ought to normalize the experience of facing challenges or hardship in life. We can provide them with coping strategies they can use to effectively manage their distress, especially the internal experiences of distress experienced with painful emotions or thoughts. We can help build emotional resilience by letting our children experience the continuum of emotions while modeling what it means to be compassionate and supportive in the face of adversity.
At this point, you may be wondering what this might actually entail. Here are some tips to keep in mind when trying to balance supporting your child with fostering emotional resilience:
Allow your child to experience disappointment. For example, if your child is not accepted to a sports team, doesn’t get the new toy they want, or loses a game, validate the emotional response the child has while also refraining from attempting to help the child avoid their discomfort or problem solving the distress. .
Help your child develop the language to verbally express their emotions and foster a safe environment in which these emotions can be discussed. Furthermore, avoid labeling certain emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A child is allowed to feel upset about having to do homework instead of watching TV.
Serve as a positive role model for your children by openly discussing your emotions with them. This may also allow them to see how you navigate your own experiences of distress. For example, in response to a child saying she is scared, responding, “It’s ok to get scared, I get scared too sometimes. When I get scared I like to take five slow breaths to help myself slow down.”
Teach your children healthy coping strategies to use to self-soothe when experiencing disappointment or emotional discomfort. This may sometimes just be taking time to process their experience, but can also involve behavioral soothing, like breathing exercises, or other child friendly activity, such as reading or coloring.