Raising Resilient Kids

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happy girl

One of the most critical responsibilities we have as parents is to help our kids be resilient to handle the ups and downs of life with confidence, integrity and character.  As much as we love them and want to be around them, our job is to teach them how to leave us!  In other words, we want our children to know how to navigate through life successfully as an independent adult.  While this includes teaching appropriate behaviour, how to make wise decision, and how to treat others with respect and care, it also includes teaching and modelling for our children how to live a life as a follower of Jesus Christ.  But one of the most important skills that sometimes get forgotten in the complexities of parenting, yet is absolutely vital to our children’s resilience, is the ability to manage their emotions.

What makes this skill so important is that they are based on our children’s ability to control and influence the way they experience life.  It gives THEM control and a way to guarantee contentment in their lives, regardless of circumstances and what happens to them.  And in a world that sometimes seems to have gone crazy, this is the skill that will help them remain rooted in a sense of security and self-competence when things are out of their control.

Let’s face it, life can be really tough and bad things can happen to all of us.  When life stinks, we often feel helpless, like we have no power to change our lives.  But the truth is, we all have significant power in our lives – it’s often not by changing what’s happening in our lives and the people around us, but it’s by taking control of our inner world.

What do I mean by inner world?  Well, the outer world is made up of things that happen TO me as well as other people.  My inner world is my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes – how I respond to my outer world experiences.  And so one of the first steps to teaching our kids how to manage their inner world s is self-awareness – this is about teaching them to pay attention to what’s going on INSIDE of them.  They need to learn that while they often can’t control their outer world, they can control their inner world – how they SEE their life and how they RESPOND to their life.  They need to learn how to express in words their internal experiences such as thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

The actual breakdown is just an estimate on my part, but I would hazard a guess that my life experiences are 20% based on my outer world – the events that happen to me as well as the people in my life — and 80 % on my inner world – how I choose to respond to my life events and relationships.  And that’s good news, because that means that I absolutely have a SAY in the quality of my life.

A key aspect of our inner world – and one that often gets us into a lot of trouble – is our emotions.  Regardless of whether we’re aware of our emotions or not, we are very much driven by our emotions. Have you ever had a time when your emotions made you do something crazy or regretful?  Have you ever felt so afraid that you were sick to your stomach and couldn’t break free from it?  Have you noticed a repeated pattern in your life with your work, relationships, or your sense of self that doesn’t seem to change no matter what you did?

Our emotions are God-given gifts that help us pay attention to what needs attending to and responding accordingly.  They are meant to be signals that tell me to notice what is going on and do something about it.  So if I feel angry, that is my signal to speak up for myself, set boundaries, or put a stop to something that is harmful to me.  And if I feel guilty, it’s my signal to apologize for a wrong I did or make amends for something.  Ignoring my emotions means ignoring resolution of problems – it means burying my head in the sand.  And unfortunately, unresolved issues can often escalate into crises – they can go from a molehill to a mountain and ultimately create a lot of havoc in my life and others around me.

Emotions are incredibly powerful and can be at the root of amazing accomplishments that are driven by our passions and strong beliefs, but it can also be at the root of consequences as devastating as abuse, self-harm and even murder.  And so as parents, it’s so critical that we equip our children with the capacity to understand and manage their emotions.  Latest studies have shown that it’s not self-esteem that is at the root of success for our kids, but self-control.

In fact, the latest studies indicate that ALL of our decisions and actions are motivated by our emotions, whether we feel them at a conscious level or not.  No matter how logical we think we are being, we cannot divorce our decisions from our emotions.  Our brains are wired to process information at a lightening speed at an emotional level, even before the data reaches the conscious, rational part of our brain.  In fact, if you were walking along and a snake crossed your path, you would actually leap out of the way even before the rational part of your brain had registered that it was a snake that had crossed your path.

So if you’re unaware of your emotions and you don’t learn to pay attention to your inner world, you can be sabotaged by your emotions time and time again without understanding why, and more importantly without having enough self-awareness to change the way you respond to a given situation.

For many of us raised in a North American context where rational thinking and intellectualism is celebrated more than emotional processing, we may have learned to keep a “stiff upper lip” and learned to just suppress and bury our emotions.  But let me tell you, suppressed emotions ALWAYS control us, we just don’t know it and therefore can’t do anything about it.

There’s tons or research that underline the negative repercussions of suppressing our emotions, from struggles with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or self-injury to physical problems with hypertension, heart issues, and other stress-related syndromes.  And suppressed emotions always eventually come out in very toxic ways, whether it’s an unreasonable outburst or impulsive decision after bottling it for so many years, debilitating illness or depression, or passive-aggressive ways of expressing how we feel.

Or the opposite approach, letting our emotions all hang out so that we’re on a constant emotional roller coaster of ups and downs, depending on how we feel at the moment.  The problem is that by the time we’re done, there’s no one left standing and we are often left with damaged relationships.  Some of us are raised in home environments where we are taught to be “honest” with our feelings, and so we attack with verbal and angry outbursts and justify it by saying, “I’m just being honest”.  Some of us were raised with parents who regularly over-reacted, or were constantly up and down in their emotions that made them very changeable and unpredictable.  This is also not healthy for us or for our relationships.  So whether our emotions are overtly controlling us or unconsciously motivating us, we need to teach our kids how to pay attention to their emotions.

Remember that our kids are born with emotions but they aren’t born with the capacity to understand or regulate their own emotions without the help of their parents.  Research clearly shows that it’s something that we have to teach and model to them.  It’s also how we respond to their emotions, how we comfort and encourage them, and how we help them regulate their emotions.

Kids will take their cues from us, and if we have trouble regulating our own emotions, they will also struggle in this area.  Households where there’s lots of emotional chaos are homes where parents struggle to manage their own emotions and therefore have failed to pass on these key skills to their kids.  This is a home where members are regularly going off on each other, and in the process, damaging relationships, creating unnecessary conflict and tension and harming each other.  As parents, we have to capacity to help our kids calm down, or we can torque them up pretty quickly.  It really is up to us.

So picture yourself as a coach.  Growth happens best when provided with the right mixture of two critical ingredients:  support and challenge – sensitive parents are good coaches, helping children discover the solution with the right balance of support and challenge.

Research shows that there are 3 different types of negative parenting patterns related to emotions:  The first is the dismissive pattern, where negative emotions aren’t tolerated and parents ignore feelings or dismiss them in hopes of not reinforcing those feelings; the second is the disapproving pattern, when parents use coercive methods to stamp out negative emotions in their kids; in this case, their “help” is often too derogatory and negative; the third type is the laissez-fair pattern, when parents accept and empathize with the negative emotions but do little to help them solve the problem.  These parents also tend to have problems setting firm limits and so emotions are allowed to run out of control.

Clinical experience shows that the most effective way of responding to our kids’ emotions is something therapists call emotion-coaching – this teaches our children the necessary skills to deal with their negative emotions – it regards our kids’ negative emotions as an opportunity for us to build bridges of intimacy with our kids and to deepen our connection with them.

Emotion coaching includes 5 key components:

1)      It includes an awareness of our children’s negative feelings, even when they’re at a low level of intensity.  This means learning to pay attention to our kids’ emotions rather than ignoring them.  It means helping them analyze their feelings to understand what situation prompted those feelings and then understand how they interpreted that situation as HOW they perceive the event impacts how they will feel.  Often times, young kids can’t tell you how they feel or why, so you will need to play detective a bit and ask questions about their day and then begin to suggest, “could it be this?  Or this?”  Your child may not be able to tell you on their own, but they can usually react to how you guide them to assess their day.

2)      It means understanding and validating their feelings then communicating to our kids that you see why they feel that way.  I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to resilience in our kids.  Your empathy can help them to experience the emotion so that it will open them up to be able to express and process their emotions.

3)      It includes guiding your children in developing their own self-awareness by helping them find words to label their thoughts and feelings.

4)      Emotion coaching means working with your kids to problem-solve, in other words, find solutions to their problems, asking, “What can be done to make the situation better?” or “What might be a better way to look at this situation so it doesn’t make you feel so bad?”  Helping them put it in perspective doesn’t minimize their emotion, especially if you’ve already given your child lots of empathy.  But responding in a calm, rational way will help your child to feel less out of control and it won’t escalate the situation in their minds.

5)      And finally, emotion coaching involves setting limits on behaviour – this is critical.  Children have to be taught that feeling intensely doesn’t grant them license to act out; rather, it’s an opportunity to examine their feelings and situation and then to govern their feelings.

This parenting approach offers fertile soil for the secure self to take root, grow and mature.  It also teaches our children that God isn’t turned off or repulsed by our negative thoughts and feelings; rather, he wants us to come to him and process our emotions with him and then seek out his wisdom to make good choices of how we respond.  It gives our children the tools to be able to handle the ups and downs of life – with God’s help – with resilience and confidence.

For more information on helping your kids be resilient, check out my CD, Rubber Band Kids available on my website under the “Resources” tab.


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