Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Encouraging strong spirited, resilient children

 I have a confession to make.  I'm a bit of a cry baby.  I don't seem to be able to tune out the misery of others and if I watch the horrors on the news or if I am around folk going through painful times I feel that knot building in my throat and the prickle of tears behind my eyes.  I don't get how it's possible to turn that off - to watch the pain of others without feeling involved and devastated for them.  It's something that will be derided as weakness by others, but I've come to the conclusion that actually I'm fine.  I'm just empathic towards others and if the world had more empathy then we'd be better off in the long run, even if it might mean a shortage of handkerchiefs and runaway sales of waterproof mascara.

 So, there it is, I'm a sensitive little flower and probably would collect unicorns and rainbows if there was space in my home not covered in books and toys.  But I have also learned to stand up for myself, to stand firm when my instinct is to walk away from failure, to be stubborn - in other words over time I have learned resilience.

Some kids are more sensitive naturally than others, and in our sensitive, naturally empathic kids it is important to give them the skills they will need to survive with their minds healthy in a world filled with everyday failures and disappointments.  For our naturally less sensitive children it is important to foster the empathy for others that they are born with, even if it isn't always so obvious in them as in our 'sensies'.


Take a typical day with a sensitive kid.  They wake up  brimming with excitement about a friend coming over to visit because they love their friends in a way that less sensitive people can't understand, and are already planning out ways to make their friend welcome, what toys they will share and what games they will play.  The friend cancels.  The sensitive child dissolves into a howling mess, sobbing out their grief and a barrage of questions about why can't they come, did they do something wrong and now the friend doesn't want to see them, did you cancel the meet up because they did something wrong, what is the friend doing instead that's more important, if they're sick exactly what is wrong and can they go and look after them, exactly when will they see them again....

How do you answer?  Do you get irritated and tell them to stop being a cry baby, they will see them when they see them? No!  It may be tempting, and not dealing with their upset ourselves may lead us all down that path on occasion, but by invalidating their feelings of grief you are deepening the wound they feel.  They may start to react less, but they are then internalising their angst and letting it fester rather than learning the skills to deal with their feelings, which they will need when disappointment continues to raise it's head throughout their lives.  If they don't learn how to deal with these strong emotions, they grow up to be people who are constantly looking for validation from other people and over dependent emotionally on the people around them. 

Breathe deeply, hold them close and explain as gently as you can that the thing that happened is not their fault, or anybody's fault, it's just that sometimes things don't work out as you want them to.  This is ok, another time will be different and in the meantime there are other great things they can be doing when they feel ready.  It's ok to be sad and angry but we can let it go and move on to the next thing.  Keep holding them while they need it.  Don't try to reason away why they shouldn't feel sad, just emphasise that there are other fun things that can be done when they are ready.  Tell them that you are sad too, but you will both feel better again soon.  If they are really howling, just hold them and listen to them until they are calm enough for you to talk to.  They will not appreciate a lecture on life, just let them know as simply as possible that you hear how they are feeling and it's understandable.  If they are older and stomp off to be alone, give them time to process how they're feeling and then take them a cup of tea when you think they are ready (the universal sign of 'I recognise you're upset and I care, even if I can't fix it for you).

If you have other children around who express concern - even very small kids will often approach to see what's wrong and offer a pat - encourage their natural empathy with praise 'thank you for coming to see if he's ok, that's very kind of you'.  If they do the opposite and laugh at the tearful one, say quietly but firmly that we do not laugh at people who are sad or hurt as it is not kind.

The biggest way our kids learn to be resilient is by watching the role models around them.  Are you able to express that you are upset about something and tell them how you deal with it?  'I'm really sad about not seeing my friend today so I'd like to go for a walk to make me feel better'.  If every time something doesn't work out you react in high drama, then that is what your kids see as being the correct way to react.

Today has been a tough day in terms of disappointments and unwelcome changes, but I'm aware of what I'm modelling for my kids, so instead of going off to wallow in my feelings of upset and throwing my hands up in the air and giving up, I have got my 'work' related angst off my chest to friends over a cuppa and then moved on to start thinking of solutions to the issues that have presented themselves while considering how the changes affect other folks too.  I made a table of problems, solutions and actions.  I suspect this may not appeal to crying five year olds 'but darling, if you just look at the chart you can see that by week two we will have actioned the plan to develop a better system of communication with regards play dates'....

Here's a few things you might like to try with your sensitive child to help them deal with strong emotions which will stand them in good stead as they grow:

1) Art therapy - provide an outlet for how they're feeling, perhaps by painting how they feel now and how they would like to feel later.  It doesn't have to look like anything - scribbling and splatting is good for this and they are likely to associate colours with how they feel.

2) Go outside for a walk - exercise releases endorphins to help them feel good, and being outside, especially in green spaces, is really calming to children and adults alike. 

3) Introduce mindfulness techniques, such as concentrating on blowing a feather gently and watching how it moves, or blowing bubbles, or lying down and placing their hand on their tummy, feeling it rise and fall as they breathe in and out.

4) Give them the vocabulary to express how they are feeling - I produced a little book for use in our Makaton group to introduce simple expressive words like 'sad', 'angry', 'scared' and 'happy'.

5) Be observant - what do they naturally do that calms and sustains them?  If they always feel good snuggled up with a book, then try to sit them down and read with them when they are over the worst of the crying. 

6) If the angst is caused by perceived failure, encourage them to try again.  I enlist the help of TV characters 'Does Mike the Knight give up when he couldn't do x or did he keep trying until he could? Shall we have another go at it now?'.  This can be a tricky one though - there's a fine line between encouraging and putting them off by insisting on too much, you will feel the difference.

None of us get it right every time, and the world can be a harsh place with grief to bear, but at least we can validate our children's feelings and help to guide them towards containment and knowing how to comfort themselves ready for when they're one day an adult and sitting on the floor and howling is going to get them funny looks from strangers.  Crying when the dog dies in 'Marley and Me' is probably unavoidable though, whatever age you are.