As parents, we know that we can’t protect our children from fear, harm, and loss. But as painful as these experiences are to witness, most of us wouldn’t take them away, even if we could. Challenge builds resiliency and capable adults later in life.
“I believe wholeheartedly in our kids understanding what the real world is about,” says Kelly Dwyer, Denver-based mother of two. “We’re not always able to protect them.”
But what if we could arm our children with a superpower that would lessen their anxiety as they face the inevitable ups and downs of life? What if we could help them to be brave? And what does “brave” really look like, anyway?
Brave isn’t just “sucking it up,” stuffing fear deep down inside, or always “going for it,” according to child development experts. Being brave takes an even bigger act of courage: Letting go of comparison, and embracing ourselves and our own experience.
“To engage an unknown experience with bravery, we need to have a specific relationship established within ourselves,” says Becca Armstrong, a Broomfield-based registered psychotherapist. “This relationship is one that includes self-love, feeling safe being yourself, trusting yourself, and self-security.”
It’s about learning to accept uncomfortable feelings, and taking action in the midst of them.
Lean into the Uncomfortable
“My youngest daughter was at her first swim team meet. She came up to me and said, ‘Mom, I have a heartbeat in my ears and my heart is pounding in my chest. I think I’m nervous.’” says Armstrong. “I replied, ‘Do you know that your body is doing something actually pretty cool right now? It’s getting ready for your swim. It’s so smart and knows exactly what to do so you can trust it. It’s pumping all of the blood and oxygen it needs to every part of your body and your brain so when the “beep” happens and it’s go time, you can jump into the water and you have everything you need to swim as fast as you can. Now that you know, you can thank your body for what a good job it’s doing to get ready.’”
“After the event, she came up to me smiling,” says Armstrong. “She had a great time. I asked her if she was proud of herself, which she responded with a huge, ‘YES.’ This is bravery.”
Brave people strive to love and accept every part of the human experience: weakness and strength, sadness and joy, discomfort and ease.
“It’s so important children believe in and feel proud of their accomplishments even when it doesn’t turn out the way they wanted,” says Armstrong. “This does not mean everyone gets a trophy. It means helping them harness what they’ve learned in the loss and bring it to the next opportunity.”
Often, parents are tempted to quickly shift their children—and themselves—away from uncomfortable feelings, or feelings some have labeled as “bad” or “wrong” like sadness, disappointment, and frustration, says Steve Sachs, co-director of Alaya Preschool in Boulder, who teaches parents to make friends with their emotions at the Shambhala Mountain Center’s Summer Family Camp.
“Instead of just getting angry and doing our habitual thing that we do, we make the choice to breathe, take a moment, even walk away to do what we need to do to feel the feeling—its energy—instead of stuffing it down or acting it out,” advises Sachs. “This practice of self-love allows us to respond instead of react. With children who are feeling their big feelings, we help them in the same way: by bearing witness, giving space, and empathizing.”
Listen to Your Child
Listening openly validates children’s experience, and builds the internal self-trust that leads to self-reliance and resiliency, Armstrong says.
Sometimes listening means waiting until your child is ready to talk about something that’s troubling them, says Dwyer.
“I think most importantly kids need to be heard and know that you’ll be there if and when they want to talk about something or just need a hug. They often process a scary or sad incident, or some sad state of affairs over time,” she says. “It can be days or weeks after learning about something scary that they’re expressing fear or sadness and asking questions. Or they don’t say anything. Their behavior changes and they aren’t necessarily aware of what’s eating at them.”
For Amy Breeze Cooper, a Broomfield-based mother of four and host of the podcast Soul Path Parenting, cultivating bravery means giving her kids unfettered room to explore. “Being brave is about full acceptance and self-expression,” Cooper says. “As humans, we are creative beings. We are meant to express and create.”
She recommends observing your children without judgment to discover where you can encourage their passions. “If it brings them joy, you’re on the right track,” she says. “Is it some kind of artistic expression? Dancing, singing, painting? Sidewalk art? Writing? Making up plays? Building with Legos? How can you support them doing more of this?”
Cooper says her husband is a great example of how early exploration yields courage later on. “He was a very expressive child and his second grade teacher suggested that his parents put him into theater … No one in the family had ever acted. It was in this pursuit that he found his voice, his ability to improvise, and his gift for storytelling that has since made him a successful entrepreneur.”
4 Ways to Build Bravery in Your Child
1. Choose Empathy Over Judgment.
When your child is upset, instead of trying to shift away from their big feelings by distracting them or soothing them, empathize. Say, for example, “I can tell you’re really mad!” or “It seems like you’re feeling really frustrated right now.” According to child development experts, we can give our children breathing room for their feelings in a few different ways: 1. Be silent; 2. Meet them with a “wow” or “I’m so sorry sweetheart”; 3. Distinguish their feeling from how they dealt with their feeling. For example, say, “I can tell leaving your friend really made you sad. Next time, you can tell me you’re sad instead of pulling the cat’s tail. It’s OK to be sad. I’m sad too when I leave my friend.” Most importantly, we give the message—to our child and to ourselves—that it’s OK to feel what we feel.
2. Practice Mindful Self Care.
Big emotions can of course be way more challenging to befriend than smaller ones. If we practice self-care each day, even for five to 10 minutes, this space to respond will grow within us to meet the more sensitive trigger points. Have a moment of silence before dinner when the child is empowered to ring a little bell or light a candle; create time as a family without screens by taking a nature walk or bike ride.
When you transition from adult work to engaging with your children, take a moment to close your eyes, be still, and focus on your breath. This allows you to avoid taking the stresses of the day into your interactions with your kids. You’re more likely to meet them with acceptance and understanding, and less likely to have a “snappy” moment, or be critical.
3. Keep Your Interpretation Out of Conversation.
We can start to practice “no comment” when our child says something. It’s not an act of ignoring; let their words and feelings speak for themselves, stand on their own merits, and allow the child to feel themselves, instead of us taking over the space with our own big words and presence.
4. Ask Affirming Questions.
Instead of saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time,” help children connect with what creates the outcome they desire. Ask: “Do you believe in you?” Then say “It’s so good to believe in you. I believe in you.” Or consider: “Are you proud of yourself? You deserve to feel really proud of yourself. I am proud of you too.”
When it comes to the internal skills needed to cultivate bravery in children, “these don’t need to be perfect or completely established,” says Armstrong. “They can be in development, however, the more established these are, the braver we are able to be.”