How to help build your child's emotional resiliency

All children, even the most fortunate, suffer emotional injuries. At home, in school and on the playground, all children experience disappointment, frustration and failure; criticism and disapproval; and exclusion by peers. In every family, there will be moments of anger and misunderstanding.

In healthy development, children recover from these moments. Whether on their own or with our support, most children bounce back. Emotional injuries are, in many respects, analogous to physical injuries. Just as our cells must repair physical injuries, emotional injuries also must be healed. Without this healing, the injurious process will spread.

As parents, it is important for us to recognize these common injuries and provide some healing of a child’s discouragement and anger. Often, a simple acknowledgment of her disappointment or frustration is all that is necessary.

Children learn invaluable lessons from moments of repair. They learn that, although it is not always easy, moments of anxiety, sadness and anger are moments and can be repaired. Disappointments, in themselves and in others, are part of life, and feelings of anger and unfairness do not last forever.

A Pathway Toward Emotional Maturity

These are critical moments in the emotional life of a child—when admired adults are able to help a sad, anxious or angry child realize that she will not always feel this way; when we help a child who is disappointed or discouraged regain some measure of confidence in her future. In these moments, we have strengthened her inner resources for coping with disappointment and distress, and built a foundation of optimism and resilience.

We have also opened a pathway toward emotional maturity. In moments of repair, children begin to develop a more balanced, less all-or-nothing perspective on the disappointments and frustrations in their lives. As a result, they will be better able to “regulate” their emotions—they will be less urgent in their expressions of distress, less insistent in their demands, and able to think more constructively about how to solve emotional problems. Moments of repair may also reduce a child’s level of physiological stress.

Ten Minutes at Bedtime

Because these moments are so important to children’s emotional health, I recommend that parents set aside some time every day (perhaps ten minutes at bedtime) for kids and parents to have a chance to talk, and use this time to repair moments of conflict and misunderstanding. This may be the most important ten minutes of a child’s day.

In these brief daily conversations, we should ask kids if there is something they might want to talk about—perhaps a problem at school or with friends, something they are angry with us about, or what they may be anxious about the following day.

When there has been conflict in our relationship with our kids, it is especially important for us to take the lead and begin to repair hurtful interactions. We need to make a deliberate effort to set aside criticism and judgment as long as we can and hear their side of the story. Discussion and disagreement, even problem solving, can come later. Especially, don’t stay angry.

Of course, children do not always make this easy, especially when they are angry and demanding, or when they insistently blame others. And sometimes we may not know what to say. But our willingness to make the effort is important in itself.

Often, when we are able to listen patiently, we will find some truth in their side of the story, perhaps some previously unnoticed provocation or hurt feeling. We can also let children know that we know how they feel—because we have also had these feelings. We have also suffered frustrations and disappointments, and moments of embarrassment. We can say, for example, “Yes, I know, it feels really bad when other kids won’t let you play…I also felt bad and angry when those kinds of things happened to me.” Many children will respond to these statements with astonishment. “That happened to you!?” And, of course, it has.

Then we can help them put their disappointments in perspective. We can remind them (when they are ready to hear it) of the good things they have done and will be able to do, and that no one succeeds all the time.

And we should let them know that, win or lose, we are proud of them for their effort. A child’s feeling that her parents are proud of her may be the deepest and most lasting emotional support we can offer—an anchor that sustains her in moments of anxiety and self-doubt.

Patient listening receives far less attention than it deserves in current parenting debates, in our understandable concern with children’s achievement and character development. In my experience, however, there is no more important parenting “skill” than this, and nothing we do as parents that is more important for our children’s emotional health—and for their success in life.

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  • Frank N. Blunt

    Because nobody listens when you become an adult.

  • Jann Bell

    But getting them to engage can be tricky. You can’t ask general stuff like “How was your day?” Too broad. I had access to successful opening lines that are more likely to start a share or an observation. Will have to retrieve it. Google a question like effective questions for young children, something like that to get you started,

  • Jann Bell
  • Heidi McDaniel

    My grandson has deep emotions from his past, he’s almost 8 and I’ve had him most of his life starting at 3. His stems mostly from abandonment from mom, dad, family members. He’s been through quite a bit in his years. I have tried reinforcing these issues but it’s just not good enough. It’s always “I have a terrible life” …a lot of self pitty and he tells people that we don’t know all that well about his mom and his life without her. It’s sad and I’m doing everything in my power to help and of course love this child. Any advice?

    • tudor watson

      I’m no expert, and this is 3 months ago so hopefully things have moved on. I thought it would be nice to try and help. Perhaps you could consider siding with him a little more on the fact that yes, on the whole he has had a tough time, he’ll meet lots of people from more fortunate circumstances and yes, sadly, some from worse. Though it’s true that things in the past have created the feelings he has now, from here on it’s partly his responsibility to do the things he needs to do so you can both be happy. Your lives are all about the future, not the past, of course you want to help him achieve this for you both and that despite any feelings that his start was not the best you are going to be there to support him, kids love to help and be useful, tap into that and good luck :)

      • Kelsie Wadsworth

        I also had a thought–research “empathetic listening” by Stephen Covey from his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He teaches how to listen in such a way that the person you are speaking to is able to feel understood and is able to come to conclusions on their own. Also, search “Empathy vs. Sympathy” by Brene Brown on YouTube. Great helps! Hope these help, I really think they will!

  • Katie McCarthy

    Love this article from PBS, It is so true “… although it is not always easy, moments of anxiety, sadness and anger are moments and can be repaired. Disappointments, in themselves and in others, are part of life, and feelings of anger and unfairness do not last forever.”

  • Hope Kay M.S. Clinical Psychol

    Great article. As someone who survived childhood depression and has worked with children and adolescents in community mental health, I welcome these kinds of articles. Childhood resiliency is important in preventing childhood depression but even with help from parents not all children are resilient. Some children may need help because unfortunately childhood depression exists. If you’d like to learn a little more about childhood depression. I have a blog on BlogSpot. It’s my effort to help people understand childhood depression a little better.