Embarrassing mom truth: When my toddler was learning to walk, I asked my mom friends if I could put a helmet on her so she wouldn’t bump her head. This mama instinct came from a desire to protect my child from harm, an intense intuition many mothers feel.
Thankfully, a friend talked me out of the helmet with common sense. How would she learn to be safe if she never got hurt? Children need to experience natural consequences to learn how to protect themselves. I’ve learned since then that I can’t always protect my daughter. She wouldn’t learn anything if I did. She has to fall down so her muscles can gain the strength to get up again.
In the same way, I often find myself wanting to buffer her from emotional pain. An emotional helmet or shield, if you will. But, if we want to build emotional resilience in our children, we also need to let them experience disappointment, sadness, anger, and anxiety so they can practice how to handle it and learn that feelings can’t destroy them.
When we eliminate all emotional pain for our children, it feels good FOR US at the moment, but what we’ve actually taught them is avoidance, not resilience.
The problem with avoidance is it typically creates more anxiety. When we avoid something, our brain starts to believe that we should be fearful of the thing we’re avoiding. Avoidance is the behavioral representation of fear and anxiety. Spending time with what makes us anxious reduces our anxiety if it is done in baby steps with people we trust.
When we allow children to avoid everything that scares them, we reinforce their fear that the world is scary and unsafe. And let’s be honest: children who have experienced trauma already believe the world is a scary place. We shouldn’t deny this thinking, but we can provide the connection and emotional support they need to feel able to handle whatever life brings.
So, what do we do when a child is fearful to help them build resilience?
Resilience is built through trust and attachment with a safe and loving caregiver. Something many children with trauma never experienced. Therefore, building a sense of safety and trust with the child will likely increase their tolerance for disappointment, anxiety, and frustration.
A strategy that works for many families is to allow the child to engage in mild-moderate stressors while giving them an “out.”
For example, if your child is afraid to go to a drop-off Birthday party because it’s triggering their valid fear of abandonment, ask them if they would be okay with going for 15 minutes, and if they’re not having fun after the time frame is up, you will wait nearby to pick them up. Another option is to go with them to the party for 15 minutes, and if they are feeling comfortable, you can leave.
Nine times out of ten, your child will be having fun when you check in on them, and will not want to leave. However, if they want to leave, it’s important to honor their decision, or they won’t trust you next time you provide an option like this.