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3 Steps for Teaching Children Emotional Resilience

I believe that teaching emotional resilience is crucial to raising young children into successful adults. Kids in the military need an extra layer of resilience. These children deal with multiple moves, deployments, loss of friends, and so much more. 

What is Emotional Resilience?

super kid represents emotional resilience

Emotional resilience is the ability to feel, understand, and manage our emotions. A person who is emotionally resilient can face difficulties in life with confidence and grace. They never fail because they never quit trying. 

People who are emotionally resilient do not shy away from the more difficult emotions like fear, anger, and sadness. They allow themselves to fully feel and process through every feeling. They don’t stuff it down or put on a mask to hide from their feelings. They embrace each new feeling as an opportunity to understand more about themselves and their world. 

Emotional resilience enables a child to understand all emotions. They are able to not only feel their surface-level emotions. They can also dig deeper and understand the secondary emotions driving them such as guilt, disappointment, or loss. They ask questions of themselves and others rather than make snap judgments based on emotion. 

People with emotional resilience are able to manage their reactions to their emotions. Because they allow themselves to feel, they are more in control of how those feelings cause them to react. They can be level-headed in stressful times, keep moving forward through fear, and speak calmly when angry. 

Emotional resilience equips children to become effective leaders among their peers. Instead of being pushed around by stronger personalities or becoming the school bully, they will be able to set an example for their friends. 

How Do You Teach Emotional Resilience?

Step 1- Understanding Feelings

wheel showing the 7 core emotions and their related feelings

Click the image for a larger version of the wheel.

The first piece of the emotional resilience puzzle is to understand what we feel. Sometimes parents need to re-educate ourselves as well before we can teach our children. One helpful tool my husband’s therapist gave him is an emotion wheel.

In the center of the wheel are the 7 core emotions; anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happy, surprised, and bad. I personally change bad to yucky for my kids; I don’t like the negative connotation of the word bad. 

As you move out to the second and third rings there are feelings that are associated with that core feeling. When you are having an intense feeling, you can look at the chart to help you identify exactly what it is that you are feeling. 

A feelings wheel can be used at the height of emotion to help a child self-regulate.

If the emotion is too intense you can do some calming exercises first, then move on to using the wheel. Have the child identify their core emotion, then ask questions about the related emotions. If they are old enough writing down what they are feeling can also help them to process it. 

Giving children the right words to describe what they are feeling empowers them to then make decisions based on sound understanding, rather than pure emotional reaction. Here are a few books and movies to help you get started:

Step 2- What to do With Feelings

person in varying stages of emotion

So now that they know what they feel, you have to teach them what to do with it. When correcting a child’s behavior, I feel it is important to differentiate between the feeling and the action. We want to make sure to clearly communicate there are no bad feelings, just bad choices. 

One sentence my children frequently hear from me is “It is ok to feel_____. It is not ok to ______ when we feel _______.”

We then talk about what other choices they had and what they think the best choice would have been. I frequently ask, “What else could you have done to solve this problem?” I have found that focusing on solutions, rather than blame, really helps them to take steps to move forward. 

It is crucial that children have a safe space to process their feelings. They need you to be that safe space. That means you have to be in control of your own feelings. You have to set the example.

Easier said than done, I know. Even more important than never making mistakes is being willing to own our behavior and apologize when we do make a mistake. 

I also teach my children to use meditation, prayer, and journaling to process emotions. Sometimes they need to process alone before they are ready to process with me. We use Cosmic Kids Yoga to teach mindfulness and meditation. The Zen Den playlist is mostly about understanding emotions. When their emotions are especially high, I encourage them to take a break in their room to pray and write/draw then come back when they are ready to talk. A parent/child journal is also a great way to open communication if you or they do not feel ready to talk through something yet. 

Here are a few more resources to help you with this step:

 

Step 3- Empathy for the Emotions of Others

I am a natural Empath. Imagine my surprise when I realized this is not an inherent trait in most people, especially in childhood!

According to the Encylopedia on Early Childhood Development, it isn’t until 13+ year old that we can expect our kids to really understand how the communication of emotions affects relationships. Kids aren’t even really aware of different emotions until age 2-5 and don’t start consciously self-regulating and wanting to solve their own problems until around age 5-7.

When teaching children empathy the most important thing is patience. I still have to work on my own empathy towards them when frustrated. I certainly can’t expect a child to be better at it than I am!

One of the best tools for teaching empathy is stories.

Books and movies can be powerful teaching moments if we take the time to discuss them. As a family, we use Audible to keep a family read-aloud going. We recently finished the Fablehaven series, which has tons of opportunities for discussing a full range of emotions. We are now listening to Anne of Green Gables. Anne affords even more opportunities to stop and discuss since it is full of big words my kids don’t all understand. 

I also do a lot of pausing and talking during movies. Anything from your favorite animated film to documentaries can be used to teach about emotions. Just a few days ago, we had several wonderful discussions while watching Harriet as a family. By discussing how the people of color in the film felt, I have hopefully helped to immunize my children against the covert racism that runs rampant in our world today. We also had some great discussions while watching how Hiro handled his grief in the movie Big Hero 6. The series Once Upon a Time is a great one for teaching empathy as well as the power of choices. 

Try one of these:

Emotional resilience is important for all of us and especially our military children. If we can teach them this early and make it a normal, healthy way of dealing with whatever life throws at them, we are setting them up for success as adults.

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