If anyone were to ask what, as a parent, you wish for most for your child, the vast majority of parents would reply something along the lines of “I just want my child to be happy.” And of course, that’s what all parents want.
But of course, in reality, it is impossible for our children to be happy all the time. Being human requires us to experience the full range of human emotion: from sadness, to happiness and everything in between.
So, raising emotionally agile children first requires us to acknowledge that happiness isn’t simply a destination that we reach when we have it all figured out (whatever that means!) but is merely a fleeting experience. Happiness is an emotion that comes and goes. It’s impossible to feel it all the time. Having emotional agility requires us to experience the full range of human emotion and, rather than wishing simply for our children to be happy, it instead encourages our children to learn to sit with all the emotions they experience and to be able to navigate these in mentally healthy ways.
In today’s modern world, there is a great focus on raising children to have high levels of self-esteem but as Susan David states, author or Emotional Agility, “in our attempts to raise children to be more capable and confident, we [can become] hyper-attuned to shielding them from any adverse experiences.” Furthermore, it can be easy to become accustomed to rewarding children for simply showing up – whether at a football match, in class, or giving their homework a go at home. And whilst, to some extent this can help to raise self-esteem, it can also hinder a child’s potential for growth.
Learning to become emotionally agile requires children to not only show up but to learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings, allowing children to recognise the emotion and to put distance between this and the resulting action.
Children who are emotionally agile:
- Show empathy towards others
- Can label their emotions and understand that all emotions pass – they are fleeting
- Know they are bigger than their emotions
- Have a sense of autonomy – making meaningful choices not because they are forced or to please others but because the rule makes sense to them and is meaningful
- Can sit with uncomfortable feelings and still choose courage over staying in their comfort zone
And to many parents, this sounds like a great skill set for our children to learn that will ultimately help them to navigate the inevitable highs and lows of life.
So, what can we do to help raise our own children to become emotionally agile?
- Coach your child through their emotions. When a child has developed a secure attachment and feel safe in the knowledge that they are loved despite their big emotions or their flaws, they learn to take risks. In particular, they learn to take risks with their emotions. When, as adults we can model that all emotions are acceptable (even though we might not want our child to feel them) and a normal human experience, it teaches children to learn to sit with those uncomfortable feelings. We don’t have to fight the feeling. And even though children may need to manage their behaviour, the emotion they experience before is completely ok.
- Validate their experience. You may not agree with how your child is feeling and feel that feeling too shy to pay for something at the counter, for example, is really nothing to worry about but for your child this feels huge. When we acknowledge how they are feeling – and that this is ok – we allow them to learn that all feelings are valid and can help prevent them from ‘bottling’ their emotions – which can lead to difficulties with self-regulation later on.
- Allow your child to problem-solve for themselves. Whilst it can feel really difficult as a parent when our children are going through a hard time, whether that’s a falling out with a friend at school or a difficult time learning a new skill, it is important we allow our children to work through this problem without trying to rescue them so that we don’t send the message that we don’t trust in their ability to problem-solve. It’s something they will thank us for later in life. Rather than rushing to try and fix your child’s problem, it can be so empowering for your child to think through the steps they need to take and to discuss this with you. Questions like “what do you think would happen if you did x?” or “what about if you did y, what would that mean?” Crucially, we want our children to focus on the process rather than the outcome – so what can be learned rather than what might happen as a result.
- Provide choice wherever possible and practical. Allowing an element of controlled choice can be really helpful in teaching children to be responsible for their actions and consequences. Where this isn’t practical, offering reasonable explanations for rules is really important. So, rather than just replying “because that’s the rule” or “because I said so,” explaining the why behind the rule can help children to formulate their own moral code of what is important to them and why.
- Model resilience to your child. Children notice the things we do far more than we realise and they are always looking to see how we, as adults, handle difficult situations or react when we try something new or hard. So, perhaps there has been a time recently when you have stepped out of your comfort zone? Or maybe you felt pleased with how you handled a situation you usually find hard? Talking to children about our own experiences and setbacks, where appropriate, shows them that this is a normal part of life and no matter how hard something might feel, setbacks are all part of learning and growing. Providing children with a positive role model in this way can be a really powerful thing!
- Embrace mistakes! We can’t win all of the time – and how boring life would be if we did! Support your child to not focus on the end result but on the journey they go on to get there instead. Embracing those inevitable mistakes nurtures a growth mindset where children can reflect on what they have learnt to help them out next time they are faced with a similar situation or scenario.
- Encourage your child to set goals for themselves. This might be to do with their hobbies or coping better with an upcoming challenge or situation. Encourage them to write their goal down and visualise themselves achieving it. You could even provide your child with a lovely visual, like a cut-out of a ladder or mountain, and work with them to plot what the small steps of success might look like as they work towards achieving their goal. As Youth Fairies, we support children to break their goals down into small, achievable steps and see time and time again how small steps lead to HUGE positive change. Setting goals in this way reminds children that success takes determination, hard-work, and the willingness to keep on going!