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Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing
Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

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2.5 Emotional containment

Emotional strength involves the ability to express and accept a range of different emotions that might be experienced in a variety of circumstances. A child’s emotional wellbeing can be influenced by the ways in which their feelings are accepted by significant adults in their lives. This process of accepting emotions, being able to hold them, is called emotional containment.

For example, if emotions such as anger are perceived by the adult to be almost exclusively inappropriate or undesirable, then a child may well learn to avoid adequately expressing such feelings. For example, many girls are actively discouraged even from a young age to express their anger (as this is not ‘ladylike’). Conversely, many boys are actively discouraged from expressing feelings of sadness (because ‘boys don’t cry’). However, such habitual avoidance could build up greater frustrations and even lead to lower levels of emotional resilience or alternative forms of emotional expression (e.g. a boy’s angry outburst when the underlying emotion is sadness).

In contrast, parents and carers who are able to adequately contain children’s emotions and facilitate their emotional regulation (even when these can be difficult to tolerate at times) can help to nurture qualities such as emotional resilience. Adults can also help the child to see that even when they are angry, upset or frustrated, they will be heard and validated.

This is a photograph of a man holding a crying baby.
Figure 6 A father soothing his baby

Furthermore, contrary to what might seem like a natural instinct to ‘take over the situation’ in order to protect the child, all that might be necessary is for the adult to patiently take the role of an alert observer, actively watching and listening to what the young child is attempting to express. Ultimately, all behaviour – however challenging at times – can be seen as an attempt at communication of some kind; finding out what the child might be distressed about is key to helping them to develop greater emotional resilience.

Sometimes adults feel they need to ask a range of questions and they can have an ‘intense interaction’ with a child in order to find out what the problem is or how best they can help. Such strategies can often be extremely intimidating for the child. A more non-intrusive way can be through play or other joint fun/social interaction, which can help to diffuse or lessen anxieties – as long as the child feels ready to engage. Through such activities, the adult can help the child make sense of how they are feeling, even if they do not yet have the vocabulary to describe this using words. Both adult and child can then work together to negotiate ways to react differently to similar situations in the future.