Strategies to Build and Strengthen Emotional Resilience in Kids

Sara Westbrook headshot

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Jan 11, 2022

As a young girl, Sara Westbrook experienced challenges within her family that decades later continue to serve as the foundation of her life’s work.

At the core of her lived experience as a tween was her parents’ separation and ultimate divorce.

“…that triggered a lot of emotions for myself, which also started to affect my self-esteem, challenges at school,” says Westbrook, an Emotional Resilience Strategist, based near London, Ontario.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a speaker, singer and author. Sarah Westbrook is also an emotional resilience strategist, and a mother of one. She joins us from London, Ontario. Hi there, Sarah.
How are you?
I’m great. So how do you first of all define emotional resilience?
For me, when I think about resilience, I always go to that bouncing ball, right, that image of a ball hits a hard surface and it doesn’t crack like an egg, it bounces back. And I think with resilience is it’s not about you’re bouncing back. And you’re the exact same, it’s that you’ve, you’ve hit a challenge to that being the floor of you’ve bounced back was a lesson learned, or you’ve bounced back with more grit. And when we add the word emotions, I mean bouncing back from challenging emotions, being able to move with them through them, knowing that they’re part of the journey, they’re not to be avoided. So when you come up with strategies on, how do we say, this is what I’m feeling. And it’s okay, I’m allowed to feel this way. It’s part of the human experience. But let’s come up with some strategies to move with in through and bounce back to move forward.
So before we get into some of the strategies that you offer your audience of parents, teachers and children, what led you down this path in the first place?
Okay, so I’m going to, I’m going to try the Coles Notes version of this, which is, let’s go back to when I was three. But seriously, when I was three, I told my mom, I said, I’m going to be a singer. By time I was eight, I was taking singing lessons. By the time I was 11, I was a paid performer, and I loved it. Also, at 11, it wasn’t just me doing my dream of performing, it was challenges started to happen at home, my parents started to argue a lot. I eventually got separated, got back together, got separated, eventually got divorced, that triggered a lot of emotions for myself, which also starts to affect my self esteem, challenges at school, you know, disrespectful comments, and my mom could see around 11 years old that it was really taking a toll on my overall well being. So she signed me up for every single support group character, Education Leadership class, she could get her hands on. And I never want to go takes a village to raise a child. But as a child, you don’t always think that you think Well, I just need more of my friends and more of the stuff that I want to do. But my mum realized that my village needed to be other voices and mentors. So that’s what those support groups did. That’s what those education, character development courses did. And a snowball effect started to happen. I didn’t want to go. And then when I got there, I realized I was learning how to move through tough stuff. And then fast forward. I was 19 years old, I was actually singing at a mall. And a principal happened to be in the audience and said, Can you come speak at my school? And just in sing and just, you know, talk about the songs? What wouldn’t you know, Liam partway through the presentation of me singing? They were asking, what’s your life? Like? What challenges have you faced? How did you move through? And so that became kind of the the planting moment for me that I was like, it’s not just about the music for me. It’s about speaking, it’s about sharing. And then since then, I’ve been taking course after course on well being emotions. Character. It’s brought me to where I am today.
Well, it’s so interesting that you’ve lived it, and you’ve seen it. And you know, you you got the help, but maybe looking back on it now, based on what it is that you do, what would you have liked to have had access to when you were three 811? All those different ages that you mentioned that you perhaps didn’t have access to that now you’re providing in some way to the students and parents that you meet?
Yes, yeah. Thank you for saying it that way. That is it is very much a passion project. For me. It is about I know the difference it made for me when I was growing up, to have a new concept, a different mindset, a different tool, an adult with wisdom that was part of my village, share something that I could really sink my teeth into and even if I didn’t use the advice right away, because I think oftentimes we can say something to a child to anyone for that matter, but speaking about children, and they’re not necessarily going to go into action with it right away, but it’s going to be in their back pocket. And if I can do that and provide that for other people and especially children, it is my commitment.
So, how do you go about teaching parents how they can help their children manage the emotions? What are some of the strategies that you use?
emotional awareness is key. And what that is, is being aware that emotions are happening, okay? So, being able to name your emotions, sound, sometimes simple but can often be difficult. We can say things like, I’m good, I’m bad, I’m fine. That’s not emotional awareness. That’s more of a category. emotional awareness is about having the vocabulary to say I’m feeling frustrated. And knowing that frustrated feels different than anger. Sadness feels different than disappointment, excitements different than happiness. So knowing that there is an awareness of your emotion, and then where do you physically feel it? Oftentimes a child will come to us with a physical impact before even knowing that it is an emotion that caused it. A couple of weeks ago, my son nine years old came to me Mom, I have a stomachache, I have a stomachache, I’m instantly like, oh, no, he’s getting sick. Oh, no. With further curiosity and an investigation, it was that he was feeling anxious. And it was causing the stomach to hurt. But he didn’t come to me and say, Mom, I’m feeling anxious. He said, Mom, my stomach hurts. So one of the tools and I and I have it right here is I drew, I was just drawing one day, and it came to me the same. It’s the elephant in the room. And a lot of us know that stain, right? It’s like the elephant in the room, everyone could feel it, no one’s talking about it. And isn’t that often emotions. So I drew 25, elephant faces, all feeling a different emotion, we have way more than 25. But this is a lot better than good, bad and fine, are just happy, mad and sad. This also I have a magnetic version. So families, like literally stick it on their fridge and put the magnet on the elephant face are feeling. But it becomes a tool to be aware and put a name to the emotion. Dr. Dan Siegel did a lot of work in emotional intelligence, emotional awareness. And one of the pieces I love is he coined a phrase, name it to tame it. The research proved that when you can name an emotion, even just to your own self, I’m feeling anxious. Now your brain sees that his information, as opposed to it completely overwhelming you. So it’s not about trying to get rid of the emotion, we’re trying to be aware of it. So then ultimately, you can start to manage and move with it.
You know, it’s an important point, because a lot of parents would have maybe have been taught as children themselves, how to deflect how to hide their emotions, for good or bad, whatever the reasons are. And now they they’re raising children in a very different world, a world where you’re seeing all kinds of emotions being, you know, felt and expressed, whether it’s on social media, you know, in other avenues as well. So let me ask you, Sarah, what strikes you as you go and talk to students and parents and educators about where emotional resilience is AP with teen and young adults today?
There’s still a lot of judgment is where I save the fear comes from so the judgment of what if they think I’m weak? So that will hold me back from saying, What if they labeled me because of how I’m feeling? I often hear that from kids. So we’ve probably all heard someone say, Oh, they’re really shy person. They’re a really grumpy person. They’re really angry person. They’re really sad person. We don’t like being labeled because of our emotions. So since we know that that can happen, often we will withhold that information. And so what I’m noticing is, as much as we want mental health, and we talk a lot about that it matters and well being, we actually have to model it. So we as the adults actually have to step outside our own comfort and start naming how we’re feeling. You know, even if it’s as simple as your cooking and something’s not going the way you want it to you say Oh, I’m getting really frustrated. I’m kind of agitated that this isn’t working out. Well. You know, maybe I’m just going to take some deep breaths, saying this in front of young people say this in front of your children. What it does, is it plants the seed that oh, we’re allowed to feel all sorts of emotion. We don’t just talk about when we’re happy. And the other ones we don’t talk about. It allows them to see, no, all of it is part of the journey. No judgment, just because I’m irritated doesn’t mean I’m an irritated person. I just a person that sometimes feels irritated. And I just sometimes feel anxious, and I am so happy. And I suddenly feel sad. And that’s okay.
When you talk about judgment, certainly social media is a platform where judgment takes place. 24/7. And you know, it can be very overwhelming for all age groups, certainly, how do you suggest that parents support their kids to try to tune out a lot of the emotions that are found and expressed on social media?
healthy boundaries is, is is key. And it can get very, very easy to just quickly check something right quickly get my phone out quickly check something even as an adult. So definitely, as a child, especially again, if we’re going back to that children see that as their village, right like that is, and if you’re trying to base your self worth on how many likes you have, it’s going to be even that much more anxiety filled, to see things that are happening on social media, if your videos not getting as liked or as commented as on your friends. And I think making sure that there’s healthy boundaries around social media is key. Also having open discussions with your children about what they’re seeing, and about what they’re experiencing. I’m going to be really, really honest with you, I’m so glad there was not social media, when I was a preteen and a teen, I would have been on there thinking okay, so do they like me, okay, in order to that, I would have wanted to base my worth on that. Which is very, very destructive. Confidence is internal. It’s an internal journey, but it’s easy to make it external. And I’m with with kids. Now, having so much at their fingertips, I can see that it could really rave a lot of havoc on their mental well being just from the constant. Like you said, it’s constant. They’re constantly being reminded of comments. And I don’t think there’s a clear answer, I think it’s all ongoing conversation and boundaries.
Now, when we talk about how different people absorb information, and specifically how they express their emotions, boys generally tend to be more guarded in general than girls. Any specific strategies for parents that you can share of boys in terms of getting them to really be in touch with their emotions?
The best way to teach our children is to model what we want them to learn. Hence, the hardest way, because then it means we actually have to do and model what it is we want them to learn. And some of us adults aren’t very good about talking about our emotions or being in tune with them. I have a son, I do find that the more I will talk about emotions, the more my husband will talk about emotions. He has learned to talk about emotions. He has learned to articulate them, because that’s how he’s heard us talk about them. So I do think that that is the strongest way. Also notice other people’s emotions and point them out. You even if it’s on a movie, if it’s on a show, be Oh, I wonder what they’re, I wonder what that facial expression means? What are they probably feeling even if your child’s into sports. I mean, lots of emotions are now being shown more than they ever have with key athletes that are sometimes crying after or before a game or something’s gone on. And they’re showing those emotions, show those videos, talk about them, say oh, you know, even other people feel emotions, point out things that are happening in the media. This is one of my favorite magazines, Time Magazine did an entire magazine on the science of emotions, the more your child is shown that, look, you’re a human being that feels a lot of stuff. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable. And sometimes it’s really hard. And so it is actually physically painful. But it’s part of the journey. So I’m here to support you. So now let’s talk about strategies on what we do with emotions. And having your child even write a list of things that help them feel good help them with emotions is I think a very important, it’s, it’s very important not just for them, but for you as a parent, because you can remind them, you know, on days when they’re in a high emotional state, you can remind them, oh, take a deep breath. Or maybe there’s that one game they like to play, or maybe they like to have alone time. And you can remind them of strategies when sometimes maybe even they’re forgetting.
Absolutely. Anything else as an emotional resilience strategist, Sarah, that you feel is important to share with parents whose kids may be struggling with their emotional health, especially these days,
connection before redirection, always to connect back to our children. So it’s okay for them to feel how they’re feeling. But our brains will send was one agent fix it was sometimes one to add logic into an emotion. You know, maybe they’re really anxious or nervous about something. And it could be easy for you to respond with. You don’t need to be nervous and anxious about that. Don’t be silly, you’re being silly. But if we think about as an adult, if we’re feeling nervous and anxious, and our partner or our friend came to us and said, You’re being silly, stop it. Would you find that really helpful in the moment? Probably not. No. And that’s what I hear from my audiences. This is what happens. I all ask them. You know, how do you start to feel when someone says you don’t need to feel that way? They say frustrated, deflated and supported, angry, unseen, not heard. The chat box just goes no matter what age group I’m working with kids or adults, teens, all of it. So then I say to them, what if they came to you, and you’re feeling a big emotion you were angry, annoyed, frustrated, overwhelmed, and they looked at you and just said, I can tell you’re feeling a lot right now. There’s a lot going on in the world. I too, have felt a lot of emotions. It’s okay to feel how you’re feeling. I say now, how do you feel supported, connected, validated, seen heard, cared about more comfortable. That, in itself, shows us that emotions aren’t about trying to fix and change them. They’re not about trying to get our child from uncomfortable to comfortable. What they want to know is that they’re not bad and wrong for feeling that it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling. So I would say just start right there, come to their emotions with it’s okay to feel it. Now, that can sometimes be hard for us parents, because usually a child’s emotion will trigger an emotion in us. So says we have to take our own deep breath, tell ourselves, it’s okay for me to also feel how I’m feeling. It’s okay for you to feel how you’re feeling. Now let’s practice what we do with the emotion. So now we’re going to practice naming it. And if like you have a tool, or a resource, name it Where do you feel it in your body? And then what can you do to move within through it in a healthy way? So that you can still be determined kind and respectful. Because we want our children to know it’s okay to feel but it’s not okay to make every choice because you felt like it. So that becomes the the teaching where we want our kids to know yes, you’re allowed to be angry, but you’re not allowed to hit harm or posts out of hunger. So what you do with your emotions matters, your emotions, our reason for behavior, not an excuse for one. So what we do is our emotions becomes very much a scale, a practice and to parents out there. There’s a lot going on, right? There’s so much there’s so much emotions, we’re feeling them, our kids are feeling them. So showing ourselves and our kids that deep breath of grace of just like sometimes it’s really just tough. But we are supporting one another when we just listen. We just listen.
Absolutely, great tips and advice Sarah Westbrook emotional resilience strategist. Thank you so much for your time today.
Thank you so much for having me.

“My mom could see around 11 years old that it was really taking a toll on my overall well-being,” the speaker and author told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “She signed me up for every single support group character, education leadership class, she could get her hands on. And I never wanted to go,” says Westbrook.

She eventually did and has never looked back.

Focusing on Self-awareness

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Westbrook continues. “But as a child, you don’t always think that. My mum realized that my village needed to be other voices and mentors. So that’s what those support groups did. That’s what those education, character development courses did. And a snowball effect started to happen.”

It led to a career in singing, being a contestant on Canadian Idol and these days supporting students, educators, parents and families with strategies to be aware of, understand and better manage emotions.

“Emotional awareness is about having the vocabulary to say I’m feeling frustrated, and knowing that frustrated feels different than anger, sadness feels different than disappointment, excitements different than happiness,” says the married mother of a nine-year-old son.

Mind-body connection

“Knowing that there is an awareness of your emotion, and then where do you physically feel it? Oftentimes a child will come to us with a physical impact before even knowing that it is an emotion that caused it,” she says.

It has been more than 15 years since Westbrook started delving specifically into the topic of emotions and their broad-based impact on how an individual feels, thinks and acts.

She conducts workshops for various audiences from schools and families to corporations, infusing motivational speaking and singing into her presentations to convey a message whose importance — in the face of uncertainty and worry — is even more resonant. Especially among young people.

“There’s still a lot of judgment,” Westbrook continues. “What if they think I’m weak? What if they labeled me because of how I’m feeling? I often hear that from kids.”

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Sara Westbrook also discusses:

  • Defining emotional resilience
  • Simple strategies to identify emotions
  • A parent’s role in helping kids manage their emotions
  • External factors that impact emotions
  • Social media and healthy boundaries
  • Role-modelling

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