Children experience all the highs, lows, mysteries, stressors, worries and joys of any human life, no matter their age. A child may feel, process, and express their emotion differently than an adult, but the core emotion carries the same (or heavier) weight in a child’s soul as it does in an adult’s.
Think about what happened to you this morning between 6 AM- 10 AM; chances are, in four hours, you most likely experienced an incredible spectrum of emotions, thoughts, social interactions, expected and unexpected events, joys, surprises, stressors, moments of pride, moments of frustration, new and old worries, huge soul-rocking thoughts and little everyday ones.
Your child, or the child(ren) in your life, experience that exact same vast spread of life experiences each hour and each day, but with a child’s still-growing and impressionable brain and soul, and the impact on their emotional and mental health is profound. Each day, children are learning and internalizing messages about their self, their worth, the world, how to cope, how to interact, how to survive, and what to believe. Their brain’s wiring is encoding each new experience— from little stressors like homework assignments or a funny look from a classmate to big challenges like losses and relationship ruptures— and creating both new neural pathways that will be called upon in future situations and new psychological, spiritual and emotional conclusions that have the potential to buoy or break their spirit.
To help our children navigate life with strength and resilience, we can think of ourselves as helping them to build the car that they will one day drive alone out in the world. We want to ensure that we create for, and with, them, a safe, sturdy vehicle with tons of tools to help them get where they need to go safely. We can’t control which roads they may drive on, which roads will end up closed, or which other drivers they may interact with— but we can start from the basic mechanics.
One simple way to think about laying the foundation for strong, resilient, emotionally healthy kids is the “Four C’s”: Connection, Courage, Consistency, Comfort. Here’s what they all mean— think of these as the body of the car you are building for your child:
Connection: Children need to feel embodied connection with others— primarily, with their adult caregivers, and secondarily, with peers. Connection takes time, presence, and intention to build. We connect with our kids when we spend time together without distraction, give them our full present attention, share their joy and feel their sadness with them, show them physical affection and nurturing touch, engage in their interests with them, and simply show up fully for them. Connected children feel safe with their support network, have models for positive relationships, and feel certain that they have a secure base from which to explore the world and a trusted net to catch them.
Courage: Everyone feels nervous sometimes, but the emotionally healthiest kids have courage enough to tackle new challenges and difficult situations despite normal nerves. Courage in kids is built through the connection described above, through experiences of having faced challenges and come through them, and through the language and belief expressed to the child from the adults in their life and intentionally created experiences that demonstrate that they are powerful, capable, and brave.
Consistency: Just as you probably feel unsettled or anxious when parts of your life lack consistency— between jobs, moving to a new place, loss of a consistent relationship, new structure to your days— children need a foundation of consistency to develop an emotionally balanced and resilient relationship with their world. Consistency comes in many forms: consistency of routine, consistency of place, consistency of relationships, consistency of structures and traditions, consistency of rules and beliefs. Identifying, establishing, and investing in threads of consistency in your child’s life gives them a sense of anchoring as other pieces shift and move, embedding the core message that life can feel stable even through difficult times.
Comfort: The counterpart to courage, above, is a healthy dose of comfort when comfort is needed. You may have heard it said that children need a balance of “structure and nurture”; the balance between “courage and comfort” is similar and harkens back to the basics of attachment theory, which holds that having an attachment figure who will comfort in distress but from whom I can explore the world trusting that they are there for me is the foundation for holistic healthy development from infancy. Children who are connected and trusting of adults will allow themselves to be courageous, take risks, be brave and raw— and also allow themselves to be fully held and soothed when sad, angry, or scared. Nurturing comfort sends children a message of care, value and safety— a message that needs to be felt rather than verbally stated.