As a therapist, many of the children I have the privilege of having conversations with, come to my office with diagnoses of anxiety, depression, A.D.H.D., A.S.D and/or various learning disabilities. One of my first questions for them might be, “what does that diagnosis mean to you?” Quite often their (sometimes hesitant) answer relates to their feelings of something being ‘wrong’ with them, that they are not as smart as others or that they ‘need fixing’. With the family, we explore these feelings and begin to look for alternative ways of understanding themselves and these diagnoses. We often land in a very different place than where we started. In talking about these issues we open up space and help our children to know that emotional health is something we can talk about and begin to break down the stigma around it.
Helping our kids to recognize their feelings and develop their ability to express themselves is key; inviting tears to express their sadness or futility is something our culture might not prioritize but research reminds us that finding a safe place to release those tears helps us move through challenges and find relief. As our children learn to express themselves we want to meet them in a place of empathy and acknowledgment. As parents, we often want to solve or fix the hard things our children encounter but we also need to create space for them to just feel heard. A simple response such as “I hear you” or “this must be so hard” helps their brain to know it’s been acknowledged and allows them to move forward.
A key protective factor in supporting our children is in creating and maintaining a healthy connection with them that provides them with the safety, security, and trust in which to develop optimally. Helping our children to reach their potential by providing them with support and structure while balancing their desire for independence and building their confidence is key in developing their resilience. Our children need to hear the message that “I believe in you”; in your abilities, skills, and perseverance to get through this hard situation.
As parents, we need to remember our own emotional health and what helps us to maintain our resilience. I was reminded of this last weekend while watching my son struggle during a sports event. It was gut-wrenching to watch him navigate the hard situation, losing his confidence and feeling sad. I tearfully turned to my husband and said ‘please help me remember that these are the situations that build resilience.” He nodded and replied, “is that his resilience or ours?” As parents we need to make sure we are taking care of ourselves; that we are connected and supported and that we too can feel our feelings and express them safely. When we have these things in place for ourselves we are better able to provide them for our children.
Leanne is a mom of three and a Social Worker/Family Counsellor who is passionate about supporting families.