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Resilience, Babies & Toddlers

Easy Tips And Tricks To Build Stronger Emotional Immunity In Children

Published: 30 Nov 2020
Easy Tips And Tricks To Build Stronger Emotional Immunity In Children

This blog is in partnership and sponsored by Nutricia.

Ensuring our children have great nutrition allows us to help them be strong and healthy. As parents, we encourage them to be active, get sleep, and look after their bodies. We encourage them to play and get dirty, but also to practice good hygiene by washing hands and keeping clean. In fact, I just recently recorded a podcast where I interviewed nutritionist, Sue Statham at the Nutricia Careline on this very topic.

Sue shared that healthy habits help build what we call immunity or resilience . A strong immune system does two things: first, it protects our children from pathogens – things that can harm them. Second, if they do get sick, a strong immune system helps our children return to good health. This is important because sometimes protection fails. Our kids are not completely immune from every possible contaminant and if they fall ill, a strong and effective immune system will fight off infection and return them to good health.

Just like physical immunity, each of us (and our children) have an emotional immune system. It is a vital mechanism for helping us to stay mentally resilient when facing challenges. And like a physical immune system, our children’s emotional immune system can be strengthened and fortified ahead of tough times so they can be protected from the mental, psychological, and emotional factors that can harm them.

There are several ways that we can support our children’s emotional immunity and foster resilience. Let’s explore 5 of those below:

Imagine emotions are like a storm

When your little one is unwell, you usually tell them to stop what they’re doing, climb into bed, and take it easy. After a day or two of rest and some clear fluids (or chicken soup if they’re a bit older), the illness has run its course and life returns to normal. In the same way, if a huge storm is creating havoc outside, we don’t scream at the sky to stop the thunder, lightning, and rain. We wait it out. Eventually it passes and life resumes. 

The same principle applies for emotional challenges . We don’t build immunity by pretending the problem isn’t there. And we don’t build immunity by telling our child to toughen up, get over it, push it down, or ‘man up’. Instead we recognise the challenge our child is facing (whether it’s big or small), we help them slow down, and patiently ride it out. This process builds immunity and resilience far more than the alternative.

Encourage communication

When our toddlers and children struggle, they have limited access to their language . Our words don’t sink in. They can’t even find their words (and telling them to use their words only makes them more worried or upset). Our job is to focus on being available to listen. They need our hugs. They build immunity as we show an interest in them and their worries.

We help them develop emotional immunity:

  • When they feel we remember things they've told us
  • When they know we care about their interests
  • When we are available to listen when they need us
  • When they feel how much they matter to us.

It is these actions that help them feel worthy and valued. They feel seen and heard. And with that connection comes a type of psychological and emotional immunity that fosters resilience. 

How do we do this?

The process is simple but putting it into action can be hard.

  • We slow down
  • We look them in the eyes
  • We listen to what they tell us – not just in words, but in action
  • We tell them we love them
  • We try to remember how it felt to be that little and vulnerable

Understand

It can be tempting to tell our children all the reasons they shouldn’t be upset about something. Their little troubles seem completely manageable to us. But our little ones don't tend to like it when we try to put their challenging moments 'in context'. While it seems a small and simple thing to us, it can be overwhelming for them to deal with whatever it is that they are encountering. 

What really builds immunity and helps them recover quickly is to slow them down (and ourselves), step into their shoes - and see things from their perspective. Can we recall what it was like to be that small and that unsure of the world when all the big people are so competent and capable? 

Studies tell us that coaching our children through their emotions helps them know their feelings are a normal part of the human experience. Just as importantly, they are more inclined to self-regulate, develop coping skills, and eventually be open to us explaining that event in context. 

This approach helps toddlers and children build emotional regulation capacity which is precisely what we're talking about with emotional immunity and resilience. 

How do we do this?

First, we do all of those things that encourage communication. That means that:

  • We slow down
  • We look them in the eyes
  • We listen to what they tell us – not just in words, but in action
  • We try to remember how it felt to be that little and vulnerable

And then…

  • We name the emotion they’re feeling
  • We explore how that emotion feels
  • We give them time to experience that emotion safely with us by their side
  • We reassure them that it’s normal to feel the way they feel

Inspiring responsibility

When we’re talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers we usually don’t think too much about inspiring responsibility. And yet, this may be the crux of what builds emotional immunity and resilience. When we have communicated compassionately and clearly with our children, it’s time to collaborate. Our goal is not to fix the problem, rather it is to empower them to develop solutions on their own or with our gentle input. 

This is tricky because they’re small and need so much help. It means stepping back from being controlling, while still being involved and facilitating their stepping forward. 

Kids are born with a desire to be autonomous. They're born resilient. Our job is to stand beside them and facilitate their development of those attributes. 

How do we do this?

After we have encouraged communication and made sure we understand, we gently ask questions like:

  • How can I help?
  • What do you think we should do?
  • What is the best thing now?
  • How can we fix this?

The answers are inside our children. As we give them the opportunity to explore these answers safely (in the context of gentle communication and understanding), they become more resilient – protected from life’s challenges – and their emotional immune system is strengthened so when challenges do arise (which they will), our children will have the confidence to navigate them and develop through them all because of the foundation we’ve established.

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