Life can be tough – and it’s no different for our kids! From dealing with school pressure, to navigating friendships, there are plenty of challenges that our kids face on a daily basis. How do we empower them with the skills needed to navigate their big emotions, or help them bounce back from setbacks and come out stronger than before?
We have the answers to all your questions from our recent Ask The Expert session on emotional resilience! Ms. Antonia Confalone, Assistant Head of Primary at Garden International School (GIS), and Dr. Lâle Battal Merlet, GIS’ School Counsellor, show us practical steps, with clear examples on how to nurture a growth mindset in our little ones.
- My perfectionist daughter is thriving at school, but inflicts enormous pressure on herself. Please help!
- My child really seems to take criticism to heart! How do I help him grow from this? Is there a right way to praise our kids?
- My 6 year-old has mentioned he does not understand why he “feels so much” and often expresses his emotions rather forcefully. How can I help him with regulating his emotions, especially his anger?
- How can I help my 6 year-old learn that it’s okay to lose sometimes?
- My child is not willing to try new tasks because of a fear of failure. How can I help her understand that a mistake is simply a learning opportunity?
- Recognising the Zones of Regulation
- My son refuses to try new pursuits, and is quick to quit stuff when it gets hard. Should I encourage him to persevere, or just accept this?
- How do I encourage my children to make new friends?
- My child is being taunted at school. How do I draw the line between letting her sort it out on her own vs. intervening?
- How much does emotional resilience depend on nurture vs. nature? What is something I can do every day to build resilience in my children?
1. Perfectionism and mental health
If your child falls into the ‘highly sensitive’ category, or is often too hard on themselves, here are some ways you can support their inner drive, while also protecting their mental health.
My daughter is studying hard and achieving in school, but she is also full of anxiety and putting enormous pressure on herself. How do I get her to strive for her goals and build resilience, without sacrificing her mental health?
- Listen, empathise with her feelings, and support her by identifying feelings of anxiety.
- Show strategies that can help manage these feelings (such as calming, breathing, association etc).
- In periods of calmness, talk about what makes a balanced and healthy lifestyle, such as a combination of physical activity, good sleep, work/homework, relaxation, socialising, and playtime. Explain the importance of achieving this balance and why our brains and bodies need it. Discuss how she can manage her time, ease her anxiety and incorporate all of these aspects into her day-to-day life.
- Identify where the feelings of pressure come from when she is calm. Guide her through her emotions. Give her the space to voice her concerns, and recognise them as valid feelings that you can support her through.
- Avoid evaluative praise, as it can feel judgmental and lead to feelings of anxiety and a fear of failure. Instead, describe the process and praise the journey. For example, try saying: ” I see/hear/notice…”, rather than “Good job/you’re great/bright/clever”.
Dr. Merlet: There is certainly more to life than the pursuit of good grades! I would continue by recognising that the uncertainty of the future is intrinsically related to our existence, feeding into our predisposition to anxiety. However, we are also hard-wired for resilience, and we can learn how to activate and strengthen our capacity to bounce back in the face of challenges.
My child really seems to take criticism to heart! How do I help him grow from this and what are the right words to respond to “I’m just not good at xxx?” Also, is there a right way to praise our kids? I want to encourage my child, but also show him that there’s always room for growth and improvement.
Helping your child manage criticism:
- Use books and play to create situations where someone makes mistakes or faces problems that both of you can work through together. Use such play to allow your child to try out different scenarios and situations. For example: “Chase [a character from Paw Patrol] finds something hard. How could we help him?”
- Model how you overcome challenges. Explicitly talk through experiences, by discussing how you solved the problem and highlight the skills or experience you drew upon.
- Make mistakes and openly discuss them. Make it okay to make mistakes and show how you can learn from them. Create a language which reflects this mindset. For example, by referring to mistakes (that you can learn from) as “Marvellous Mistakes”.
Praise and encouragement:
- Once again, avoid evaluative praise as this may backfire, and he will feel that something is right or wrong. Use specific phrases instead. For example, “I see a clean floor”, “You tidied all the toys away into the boxes”, and “I can hear the cat purring, he likes it when you tickle him so gently”.
- When you are giving feedback, focus on the behaviour, not the child. For example, “I can see that the toys are on the floor” rather than, “You didn’t tidy, you’re lazy”.
- Be specific and give guidance. For example, “It would be so helpful if you tidied the toys with me. If we do it together, it will take half the time!”
- Focus on the positives as guidance on how to improve. For example, “I love how these letters are sitting so beautifully on the line, they are not flying up in the sky or falling down into the grass! You really took the time to form them so well and I can read them really clearly,” rather than, “These letters are messy and falling off the line.”
- Allow a chance for your son to self-reflect and consider how he could do things differently. This would need to be during a period of calm, when he is fully settled in the “green” zone (See: Zones of Regulation below). With gentle questioning and guidance, he would be able to draw his own conclusions and you could then co-construct the next steps together. This will develop self-awareness and insight.
Zones of Regulation:
Ms. Confalone: We refer to the green zone (for our kids) frequently, and this is the calm space within which we form our rational responses. When we move outside of this zone, we might enter the red (angry/fight mode), blue (sad/despondent mode) or yellow zone (excitable/anxious mode). We refer to these as the Zones of Regulation. Being able to identify how we feel within each of these zones allows us to self-regulate and find strategies to return to the green zone. All children are different, so the way in which we approach any situation will vary child to child, depending on where they are in life at any given time.
- It is normal for everyone to experience all the zones at some time. There is no wrong or bad zone but we can use tools to help us return to a zone where we feel more comfortable.
- Tools and strategies to use in the red zone must be taught before we are in the red zone. Find out what works for your child and talk about this when your child is calm and comfortable rather than when they are hurt, angry or upset.
My 6 year-old struggles with regulating his emotions, especially his anger, and often expresses this rather forcefully (through his words or actions). What worries me the most is that he has also mentioned things like hating himself or wanting to hurt himself, or not understanding why he “feels so much”. I’m very concerned and just want to help him!
Ms. Confalone: At the moment, your child enters the “red” zone quickly, struggles to manage his actions when he’s in there and find it difficult to regulate his emotions to return to the “green” (calm) zone. He needs you to be beside him to guide him through these big emotions. Keeping your calm and your rational, developed, grown-up brain will help him.
Your role is to:
- Support him when he enters the “red” zone (with calming, empathising strategies).
- Reduce the amount of time he enters the “red” zone (by widening the green zone and increasing emotional resilience and tolerance).
- Teach him strategies to return to the green zone by himself.
- Help him identify the feelings experienced when in red/yellow/blue zones.
Widening the green zone:
1. Calm your child through empathy. For example, you can say “I know you’re cross, tell me what happened.” This gives your child a chance to explain, and they will often calm down simply by explaining. Empathise and listen.
2. Build skills and nurture connections. Once calm (and during other times away from the situation), teach him strategies to use when he is angry. Ask questions such as:
- What did you feel in your body?
- Was there a moment you knew you were going to explode?
- When you feel that anger, what else could you do?
- What calms you down?
Some further calming strategies could include:
- Breathing techniques (counting, visualising, movement, redirection).
- Taking a pause.
- Talking through, and modelling skills.
3. Connect and build insight through reflective dialogue, then redirect by asking questions such as “How can we make it right?”
What happens when we employ these strategies:
2. Losing and mistakes
Embracing mistakes may be harder for some, and losing gracefully is something we all have had to learn. With support and guidance, we can help our kids develop a healthy attitude towards making mistakes and losing.
My 6 year-old is intent on winning everything and absolutely loses it when she doesn’t win! How do I teach her that it is okay to lose sometimes?
Ms. Confalone: At the moment, when your child loses, she falls out of balance, and her emotions become deregulated. As an adult, you can help to guide her and develop that part of the brain. Your role is to support and regulate her emotions, and to teach her the skills and abilities to help her deal with situations such as losing.
We need to let our kids know that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed and frustrated when they lose, and then support them with ways to regulate these big emotions. This is achieved through co-regulating and and co-supporting our kids as they rebalance.
We teach them skills to help them self-regulate in the future. We soothe and reassure them that they are safe. We understand that big feelings are overwhelming for them. These steps may help:
- First, make a connection- hold, soothe, empathise and show love. For example, you could say, “I understand that you feel cross when you lose. You want to win, and when you don’t win, you feel angry.”
- Talk to her about appropriate behaviour once she has calmed down. Trying to reason with a child when they are in the “red” zone is pointless. Avoid telling them to calm down or to make good choices, as they can’t at that moment.
During calm periods:
Gradually widen your child’s window of tolerance, and their ability to cope with losing by:
- Teaching your kid about what the “red” zone is (how it feels when big emotions overwhelm you, how their body might react, when they might feel this way).
- Teaching calming techniques, such as breathing and counting.
- Creating scenarios where they can practice losing. For example, board games can be played to expose your child to small frustrations.
- Role-playing, using small world toys and other play situations to “act out” how it feels like to lose. For example, play a game where Batman himself is playing a game and loses. How might he feel? How might he act?
- Modelling your own reactions when you lose. Explicitly demonstrate ways to cope with the frustrations of losing.
- Focusing on the enjoyment of playing games, rather than on winning or losing. Try playing games that are just fun to play, with no definite winner or loser.
- Playing team games where the winners or losers are in a group. Model within the team how to be a team player and a good sportsperson by showing grace and respect whatever the results.
Dr Merlet: Letting her win is ok, but this should not become a way to avoid or escape from frustration. When you let her win, take the opportunity to model how you are dealing with your own frustration to teach her distress tolerance skills. Introduce frustration progressively. Validate her feelings and co-regulate her emotions. The adults’ reactions will teach the child the necessary skills to develop.
My child is not willing to try new tasks because she is too concerned about failing or making a mistake. She also gets upset easily when something is difficult. Any tips to share to help her understand that a mistake is simply a learning opportunity?
Ms. Confalone: Developing a growth mindset is a journey that will have a huge benefit on your daughter throughout her life. Try working together alongside your child, creating opportunities to widen her tolerance for making mistakes and creating a safe place for her to “have a go”.
- Modelling mistakes is a powerful way to show our kids that we all can make, cope and learn from mistakes. Viewing us all as “learners” will strengthen her perception and ‘allow’ her to be a learner too.
- Create a positive and exciting learning environment. Talk to your child about “growing our brain”, learning new skills and gaining knowledge.
- Look for opportunities to show examples of other people or characters who are learning through mistakes, with books such as The Dot, videos such as Class Dojo, and other real life examples.
- Create a celebration for “Marvellous Mistakes” so that mistakes can become a positive thing.
- Use previous learning to support new learning. For example, reflect back to when something was tricky, but your daughter managed to handle it well. Capture those feelings of success, and draw on them later.
- Use encouraging words like “brave” and “unstoppable” (See: video below for reference).
3. I give up!
My son refuses to try new pursuits and is quick to quit stuff when it gets hard. Should I encourage him to persevere, or just accept this?
Ms. Confalone: This is a very common situation! What’s the balance- are we pushing too much or not enough?
First, listen to your son. Understanding his reasons would help. Why does he want to quit? Is his window of tolerance small for challenges? Could this be widened? Is he worried about failure? Help him to see his pursuits as a journey rather than a final destination.
Try not to minimise his feelings or tell him that others could “do it.” Instead, validate his feelings and come up with strategies together on ways to overcome the challenges when he is in the “green” zone. For example, “I understand that you are worried that you won’t be able to do this. I’m right here with you, and let’s take it one step at a time.” Gently supporting and knowing how much to push your child is built on the relationship you have.
- Interest: Make sure he is interested in the activity. Has he chosen it, and does he know what it involves?
- Pressure: Keep the activities lighthearted. Try not to make him feel like he has to be a “star footballer” or ready for the Olympics.
- Language: Your son needs to hear support and encouragement, rather than feel shame or disappointment. He may already be worried about making mistakes or failing. Knowing that you are there to guide him will give him that strength and encouragement to have a go.
- Set small goals: Continue to praise the effort along the way.
- Model: Use other situations to model overcoming challenges and having a go.
- Lead by example: Set yourself goals and challenges.
- Prepare: Talk about what might happen, and discuss how your child can overcome potential challenges.
- Revisit: Remind your son of the times that he has overcome obstacles and how he felt. Ask him to hold on to those feelings.
- Lay out options: Talk to your son about the choices he has (to have a go, or to not have a go). Which is the better choice? Will he ever know the outcome if he never tries? What would happen if things get tricky? How can he manage the situation?
- Remain patient: Give your child the chance to express how and why they are feeling a certain way. Remain empathetic and work through challenges together.
- Safe space: Practice the activities at home where the stakes are lower. If your child is struggling with a ball skill, practice at home between sessions.
4. Stepping in or stepping out
As protective mamas, there are times we wish we could swoop in and rescue our kids, snowplow away obstacles, and protect them from all harm. It sure takes a lot to hold ourselves back, so our kids can develop coping skills and resilience! The experts show how to find a balance between guiding, supporting and overtaking learning from our kids.
How do I encourage my children to make new friends? Does stepping in to help them socialise prevent them from learning these social skills independently?
- Model social skills: Interact with people around your child, and model the language.
- Use play: Dolls, action figures, animals, play people, puppets and dress-up are all excellent ways in which you can practice the skills and language that children will need to successfully interact with others. This allows them to play out these roles within the safety of this imaginary world. Home corners, shops and other real-life roleplay areas are perfect to prepare children for real life situations.
- Organise playdates: Playdates can help scaffold your child’s initial social interaction. By being there, you are offering support, whilst still giving her the opportunity to meet others and build social skills.
- Join clubs: Sign your child up for clubs and activities that he or she enjoys. This provides the opportunity for your child to meet like-minded children who they may naturally build friendships with.
- Give space: Allow your child the space to “have a go” at social interactions. It may be a little awkward at first, but by practising, these initial interactions will gradually get easier.
- Encourage empathy: Foster empathy through books, films and real-life interactions, to help your child relate to others better and form stronger relationships.
Dr Merlet: Think about your own social life and friendship skills. How are you modelling social skills for making new friends and maintaining friendships? Create opportunities by organising playdates with her friends and neighbours’ kids. Read social stories and watch short videos to encourage her to practise with others. Talk to her teacher about participating in “friendship lunches” at school. Enrol her in co-curricular activities inside the school.
My child is being taunted at school. How do I draw the line between letting her sort it out on her own vs. intervening? And how can I encourage her to be brave enough to voice out her “no”, if she’s not comfortable in any situation?
Ms. Confalone: This depends on the level of what is happening at the school, and the age of your child. If you are concerned, I would recommend speaking to the child’s teacher to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening and ensuring that the teacher is aware of the situation. They will be able to offer another perspective, look out for any behaviour that can be addressed within school, and work alongside you in building up your child’s confidence.
- Listen and remain open whenever she speaks about what is happening, validate her feelings and make sure she knows that you are there to support her and guide her through this. Try to remain calm and reflect back a belief that she will manage these situations. Empathise and connect with her, without playing knight in shining armour. Avoid riding in to rescue her, as you would want to provide her with the tools to work through this herself as you support her right by her side.
- Roleplay and practice situations in play. Try out ways of responding, and allow her the opportunity to prepare in advance. With younger children, teaching phrases such as “Stop, I don’t like that” are really important, as little kids may run away (when it seems like a game), as they may not yet have the language to respond. This clear, short response is direct and leaves no room for ambiguity.
- Ensure that she has a trusted adult at school who she can speak to and who she knows she can go to, if needed.
- Talk through situations as and when they occur. Reflect and think about how the situation could be handled. This is a chance to encourage empathy too, as you can offer the perspective and feelings of other children.
As children get older, do remember to keep lines of communication open, maintain the connection and then balance how much you need to support and how much you need to allow them the space to overcome their own challenges.
5. Nature vs. nurture
How much does emotional resilience depend on nurture vs nature? What is something I can do every day to build resilience in my children?
Ms Confalone: By nature, children show differing levels of emotional resilience. We can, however, build upon this through nurture and use many strategies to support their growth. It is important that we don’t try to shield our children from “negative” emotions, or try to fix situations too quickly. Allowing our kids to feel the range of emotions will allow them to build their coping strategies and increase their emotional resilience.
Building resilience includes supporting our children and showing them that life is a journey of effort and discovery, and that we grow from effort and experience. Here are some things to remember in our daily lives:
- Explicitly show examples when you see resilience in action.
- Model emotional resilience and approach challenges with gusto.
- Recognise and highlight resilience in books and films.
- Create opportunities to practice resilience into activities.
- Reframe approach to pain – struggles aren’t always bad things to go through.
Here are some ways we can build resilience:
Through modelling: Modelling is a social learning technique where parents show their child how to respond to challenges by engaging themselves in healthy behaviour patterns. You can illustrate how to face difficulties by acting in desirable ways you would like them to develop. You can deliberately create opportunities to model the strategies you are using to delay gratification, tolerate distress and practice bravery to overcome life’s challenges. Therefore, you should first deal with your own anxiety and distress tolerance skills, to become comfortable in modelling the healthy behaviours.
With consistency: Being consistent and predictable in your responses to challenging situations helps your child feel safe and more confident. Parents need to be on the same page for cultivating resilience and modelling healthy ways of dealing with adversity.
By working hand-in-hand with your child’s school: When the adults in your child’s life agree upon the ways to respond to challenging situations in a consistent fashion, it becomes easier for the child to practice their bravery and increase their resilience.
By asking for professional help: Remember, these guidelines could be powerful for developing social emotional skills and building resilience in your children. However, each child is unique with their strengths and challenges. Therefore, keep an open mind for professional help from a counsellor, a psychotherapist, or a psychologist before the little problems pile up and get overwhelming.
6. Equipping, rather than avoiding
Avoiding negative emotions is tempting, but our children need to learn to overcome the inevitable ups and downs of life in their stride. Dr Merlet shares avoidant behaviours to look out for in your kids, as well as more tips on how to build resilience.
Dr Merlet: In the face of challenges, our common gut instinct is to avoid. When your child feels distressed, their avoidance or escape reaction gets activated. They might cry, hide, or run away! The tricky part is that, in the short term, this works well. However, avoidance or escape prevents them from learning how to tolerate distress and overcome challenges.
Examples of avoidant behaviours include:
• Tantrums, crying or angry outbursts
• Reluctance to speak in front of people
• Refusing to try new activities, meet with new people, make new friends or go to new places
• Clinging to parents or caregivers
• Strict adherence to routines
• Asking for reassurance
Tolerating distress and frustration: It is important to know that our bodies are hard-wired to “bounce back” from anxiety. In other words, we have an innate capacity for resilience in the face of challenges. If we avoid or escape from challenging situations each time anxiety shows up, we will never get the opportunity to practice and strengthen our resilience skills.
We need to accept and experience anxiety to fully understand that we are indeed able to tolerate and overcome it. Anxiety is unpleasant and uncomfortable, but not dangerous! This understanding will open up the possibility of developing courage and bravery.
Accommodation is not the way: Accommodation is the parent’s reaction in the face of their child’s distress or frustration, such as reassuring them repeatedly, keeping them at home when they fear going to school, sleeping with them when they are afraid of being in bed alone, or trying to fix the situation to avoid their frustration.
Accommodation is not the solution. Instead, encourage your child to face their fears by pinpointing the situations which trigger their distress, validating their emotions and empathising with their tendency to engage in avoidance, expressing your trust in their capacity to face the challenge, and finally, by encouraging them to approach the situation when there is no real danger.
Developing emotional literacy: This is a child’s ability to identify, label, and understand emotions in themselves and others. Strong emotional literacy helps with distress and frustration tolerance, and improves interpersonal relationship skills.
Building assertiveness: Assertiveness is a communication skill. You can teach your child how to express their feelings and thoughts in a calm and respectful manner, how to speak up for themselves, and how to advocate for their needs and rights. Research shows that assertiveness training helps to increase resilience in children.
Cultivating a growth mindset: “I know you can do better. Let’s see how you can prepare for the next time.” Teach your child the magic word: yet. “I don’t know how to do it yet!”. Adding the word “yet” to the end of sentences changes the perspective, and opens the challenge to positive potential.
Practicing emotional regulation skills: You can practice breathing techniques together with your child to help them calm their nervous system, and better regulate their emotions. Here is a link to a simple, yet efficient, breathing technique developed by researchers.
To expand upon these important conversations at home, the experts have also shared a helpful list of recommended resources for parents and children that help to hone emotional resilience:
Books for parents
- The Yes Brain by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
- Emotional Resilience and the expat child : Practical tips and storytelling techniques that will strengthen the global family by Julia Simens
- The Optimistic Child : A proven program to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman
- Mindset by Carol Dweck (do listen to the author’s Tedtalk here, as well!)
- Resilience : How your inner strength can set you free from the past by Boris Cyrulnik
Books for teenagers
- Be Resilient : How to build a strong teenage mind for tough times by Nicola Morgan
- Outsmarting Worry : An older kid’s guide to managing anxiety by Dawn Huebner
Books for kids
- The Disappointment Dragon : learning to cope with disappointment by K.I. Al-Ghani
- Bounce back! A book about resilience by Cheri J. Meiners
- Wilma Jean The Worry Machine by Julia Cook
- No More Worries! : Outsmart anxiety and be positively you by Poppy O’Neill
- 12 Annoying Monsters : Self-Talk For Kids With Anxiety by Dawn Meredith
- The Hugging Tree : A story about resilience by Jill Neimark
This is a sponsored post by Garden International School (GIS).
If you would like to find out more about how Garden International School can support your child’s journey and encourage the raising of resilient kids, do join their Coffee Morning session with the EYC Experts, happening on 24th May 2023.