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Nurturing Emotional Resilience: Supporting Positive Mental Health for Children and Teens

Updated: May 7

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In some ways it can be easier to face your own personal struggles than to watch your kids navigate hardship. As a parent, you naturally want to shield your kids from pain and support their emotional health. Yet, it's not always easy to know the best way to help them. It’s normal to feel a bit helpless in these situations. Ultimately, you can’t keep your children from experiencing difficulty, but you can create an environment that fosters support and connection and gives them the tools they need to face their challenges.


I’ve certainly not perfected the art of parenting, but I’ve spent a good deal of time hanging out in these murky waters. As a therapist I specialize in attachment wounds and trauma so, in addition to my training in human development, I am exposed to a variety of relational injuries that occur in childhood and adolescence and know how critical these moments are to the development of a person’s sense of self.


The Power of Attunement

Attunement is a word that describes the synchronicity of the mother-infant duo. Attuning to someone involves looking at something through their eyes, and even anticipating how they are feeling or what their needs are. As a child grows, they are still need of our attunement, but it looks different. In a world inundated with external opinions and societal pressures, it's easy for this process to get clouded. Instead of leaning in to what a child really needs or what suits their personality, parents tend to second-guess themselves or feel pressure for their kids to live up to arbitrary social standards.


In order for you to attune to your child, you have to be able to silence the outside voices that don’t align with your child or your family values. While seeking advice and knowledge is valuable, ultimately, you are the experts on your own children. Nothing is right for everyone and your job as a parent is to stand up to the societal norms that do not apply to your child or your values and say “This doesn’t work for us.” The alternative is trying to force your children to fit into cultural standards that don’t suit them and may even end up being harmful. 


By honoring your children's individuality and needs, you create a home environment where they feel seen, heard, and accepted. There are so many environments where kids have to censor themselves to fit in. At the very least, home should feel like a place they effortlessly belong. Seeing them for who they are and allowing them to follow an authentic path, is a true gift that will support a healthy sense of self-worth. Likewise, knowing when your goals for them are driven by your own fears and anxieties will allow you to guide your child more effectively. This type of parenting takes courage and it may mean you’re doing things differently than your friends. You’ll have to get curious about why these things matter to you and be willing to break free from external expectations.


Manage Your Anxiety

It’s hard watching your kids struggle. It’s natural to feel powerless and want to keep your kids from experiencing pain. Parents often feel compelled to intervene. Rather than rushing to fix your child’s problems or offering empty reassurances, the most important role you can play is to be present with their pain. When your child feels seen and supported, your efforts to help them develop the tools they need to navigate difficult situations will be more aligned with their needs and better received. In order to do this, parents have to stop making it about themselves. 


Parents often internalize their children’s problems as a deficiency in their parenting ability and worry about the child’s future, which triggers an urge to overcompensate. This happens in a blink of an eye. Can you take a breather in this moment? Notice what you’re feeling in your body? If emotions are high you needs to slow down and allow that insecure part of you to step aside so that you can focus on what your child really needs in this moment. Giving a lecture might make you feel like you’re doing your job as a parent, but it may be entirely out of sync with what your child is experiencing. Questions you can ask yourself to gain some perspective are:


  • What I am worried will happen if they do or do not (fill in the blank)?

  • What am I telling myself about by ability as a parent in this moment?

  • What am I compelled to do to solve the problem/make myself feel better?

  • What does my child really need in this moment to help them succeed?


Engage in Emapthic Attunement and Curiosity

It hurts to watch your child suffer and it’s natural to want to remove every roadblock and swoop in to resolve their challenges. However, a child’s sense of competence and autonomy is undermined if they don’t have the opportunity to struggle and come out on top. If a parent cannot manage their own discomfort watching a child struggle, and intervenes too quickly on their behalf, they are robbing the child of an opportunity to grow and develop the sense of confidence they need to navigate adulthood.


What a child needs most in these moment is empathic attunement. Can we meet them where they are in in their emotional state? Instead of taking action on your child’s behalf or rushing to help them feel better, try listening and normalizing their experience. Validate their feelings and let them know they’re not alone in their distress. This opens the door to broader communication about what is and what isn’t working for them and allows them to be an active part of the solution.


When you take a problem-solving approach your kids internalize the message that their feelings aren’t important and you can’t be a safe place for them. By helping your child identify their emotions, you’re letting them know that their feelings are normal and you’re sending the message that you can handle their pain, anxiety, sadness, etc. and you are there for them. Once your child’s emotions are stabilized, efforts to problem solve will be more effective and you can work together to think of solutions or different ways to think about the problem. Empathic attunement is a skill you will both benefit from, but you may have never had it modeled. Learning and engaging this process will help you and your child understand yourselves better as you incorporate it into your life.


Begin with asking questions to understand what is happening and to understand their concerns. Then you can help your child understand their feelings in response to the situation. It’s not unusual for them to struggle naming what they’re feeling, especially if these conversations haven’t been taking place throughout their lifetime. If they struggle to articulate their feelings, try naming it for them. “That must be frustrating.” “That really hurts.” “You must be feeling pretty discouraged.” “I can see why this is scary for you.” Identifying these feelings is not going to make them feel any worse than they already do. In fact, naming and normalizing emotions integrates both sides of the brain, which can decrease the intensity of the feelings.


Think about how it might feel to be starting a new school without any friends. Jumping in with words of encouragement about how easily the child meets new people may lead the child to feel misunderstood or dismissed. This misattunement increases the child’s distress because they feel like you don’t understand. Depending on the child, it may also lead them to conclude that something is wrong with them for feeling badly about the situation. When we attune, we can see that starting at a new school is scary and it’s normal to have worries about whether you will find people you connect with and whether you’ll like the teachers. Normalizing that feeling calms the distress and will enable you to discuss the previous times they’ve faced a challenge like this and what worked, provide encouragement, or consider what might help them feel less fearful, like attending an orientation day.


What about a problem like poor school performance that might lead to criticism or punishment? These circumstances easily trigger anxiety in the parents and fear over the child’s future. It’s easy to come at your kids with punishment or unhelpful criticisms: “You should have studied harder.” “You’ll never get to college if you don’t take school more seriously.” “You could get better grades if you put in more effort.” Note that lectures, criticism, and discipline often make parents feel like we’re “doing something” but often leave the child with shame and no greater ability to manage their challenges. Read that again. It makes PARENTS feel better, but hurts the child. Most kids already feel bad about not doing well, even if they adopt a cavalier attitude about it. This is almost always a defensive device to cover their shame. No child likes to disappoint their parents and it doesn’t feel good to do badly. Your child needs to know that you love them unconditionally and are there with them to help them get the support they need. When they feel you are on their side, they will likely be more open to meaningful efforts to help. Curiosity goes really far here. What are the challenges for them? Do they need academic support? Do they have a learning disability? Are your expectations for them unrealistic based on their unique selfhood?


Our ability to engage with our child’s emotions will enable us to respond to their situation with precision, helping them face their problems with the support they need, instead of sloppy efforts to ease our anxiety and make the problem go away.  Getting curious about what they need and supporting them in developing a strategy to meet their needs, helps them gain a sense of mastery over their problems and let’s them know they can turn to you. If their efforts at advocacy are met unfavorably, ask if they would like you to intervene. Sometimes it’s better to follow their lead, but you need to use your judgement in matters of safety. This approach helps them develop skills to handle their problems and also gives them the confidence that they can turn to you and get meaningful help with their problems.


Say You’re Sorry

Inevitably, you will stumble as a parent, reacting out of fear or frustration in moments of stress. Don’t allow this to take you into a shame spiral about your ability as a parent. When you know you’ve been too harsh, were acting out of your own fear or anxiety, or lost control of your emotions, say you’re sorry. Without repair, children are left on their own to make meaning about what happened and it is often to the detriment of their self worth. Acknowledge that your behavior was in response to your own emotional experience, and affirm their dignity. You may need to come back to a teaching moment at some point, but let your apology stand alone. No, "But you..."


These situations seem casual and fleeting, but I assure you, they end up shaping the beliefs your children carry about themselves throughout their lives. Most of my work as a therapist is helping adult client’s unravel these messages. Let us help our children internalize their importance to us, their worth, their ability to rely on us for support, and the belief that their feelings and needs are important. This is the most valuable type of generational wealth a parent can pass down. 


Nurturing emotional resilience in children is an ongoing journey rooted in empathy, trust, and unconditional love. By prioritizing your child’s individuality, providing meaningful support, and embracing the inevitable challenges along the way, we empower them to navigate life's twists and turns with courage, grace and the knowledge that they can do hard things.

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