Feel, rest and play

Not long ago, I heard parenting expert Adrienne Wood talk on raising resilient kids. It got me thinking – and I realised that nearly every family that comes along to family coaching wants resilient children. It’s a real buzzword in the parenting space these days. We parents talk about resilience a lot (I definitely do, I’ve used it in three out of the last four sentences).

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Adrienne draws on principles from Canadian Psychologist Gordon Neufeld. His thoughts around resilience are challenging and game-changing for parents. There are different ways of talking about resilience. If we’re not careful, resilience can be a code word to describe how we really just want our kids to tough it out after a setback. Most parents want their kids to be successful. We want them to be able to handle a setback and still fire without fuss. But that’s not what real resilience is.

Real resilience

Real resilience is something quite different to ‘toughing it out’ – in fact it’s a lot noisier and messier than that. Adrienne shared that, “Real resilience is about returning to optimal functioning after a setback.” Another way to describe optimal functioning, is the ability to remain soft-hearted.

Let’s take the parenting lens off for a second – and think about what resilience looks like for us too, as adults. Resilience looks like us making it back to a good place after hard things happen. But you can’t return to a place you’ve never been before. So, how do we help our kids to have a foundation of emotional health?

The triangle

We can’t have a resilient response without having known resilience to start with. Adrienne encourages us to think about resilience as looking like a triangle. I’m a visual learner, so this helps me a lot.

In simple terms, resilience is about three key elements (just like the three sides of a triangle) – feelings, rest, and play. When a person (of any age) is full feelings, full of rest and full of play, they’re thriving.


True resilience starts with feeling your feelings. Emotional health is noisy. It often involves lots of squawking, complaining, frustration, opinions, being upset and annoyed. A child who is emotionally healthy is making noise about what’s going on in their world. Having the freedom to express their feelings and have them heard and responded to, goes a long way in growing resilience.

The opposite of a noisy child, is a quiet, unresponsive or withdrawn child who is internalising their frustration. Although the quiet is rather pleasant for us as parents most of the time, it can also be a troubling indication that there’s a whole lot of shut down going on. Silence can be playing quietly and confidently, or it could be building a wall to hide behind or as Adrienne puts it ‘having a defended heart’. To be emotionally healthy, we need to feel deeply. As parents we need to help our kids unlock their difficult feelings in a really healthy way.


On the right side of the triangle, we’ve got rest. My colleague Jenny Hale writes, “A child who always strives to do right in every single area, is almost always an exhausted child.” We need to create spaces for our children to make mistakes and relieve them of the pressure of getting it right one hundred per cent of the time. Note to self – we need to give ourselves the same permission to stuff up occasionally too.

When a child isn’t resting in our love, they have to be constantly working hard to get our attention and affection This creates a restlessness and anxiety in them. When everyone in the family is busy with this, that and the other thing – a child can sometimes need to over-work to get their parent’s attention. Sometimes what parents deem to be bad behaviour is just a child saying “Look at me, here I am. Meet me.” Allowing a child to rest in your time, love and attention has everything to do with developing resilience.


The other side of the triangle is play. Play only emerges when we’ve had our feelings heard and we’ve had enough rest. So we start with the feeling, we find the rest, and then this amazing thing called play emerges. Play is what we were born to do, a spark of curiosity and creativity brings us to life. Play is where we lose track of time, it’s not outcome based and it’s energising.

Our attention and our affection are like fuel for our kids. Like a good solid meal, when our kids are full up of being seen, heard and understood by us, they have the capacity to venture out to explore and engage fully with their world. The opposite of play is emotional hunger, where our kids are so busy craving to have their needs met that they cant access their imagination or creativity. Our kids need to play deeply for true resilience to emerge.

It’s not about lack of adversity

Maybe the most important thing you’ll read today is that being resilient is not dependent on a lack of adversity. I think that’s one thing that as parents we get really caught up with. We try and smooth the way for our kids to have a resilient kind of life experience. Resilience has nothing to do with a sweet life. Kids that experience enormous adversity can show some of the most phenomenal resilience. Why is that?

There’s a lot of research about resilience. What most of it points to, is that the ability to return to a healthy place ultimately depends on just one thing – the presence of a safe, trusted and responsive adult.

I love that idea. It’s unhooked from a perfect white picket fence life. A child just needs one safe and healthy attachment for this resilience to emerge. Resilience equals relationship, it’s actually that simple.

I’m hosting an event on August 1 on raising resilient kids, and I’d love to see you there. 

Adrienne is a presenter, writer and parent consultant who draws on the theory of Canadian Psychologist, Gordon Neufeld. You can find out more about her work at heartsync.co.nz.