Bressie: How to teach kids to process life’s negative emotions

The key is to enable them to express it and not repress it, writes Niall Breslin

This article is part of a series focusing on hope, courage and resilience in the time of Covid-19

When I was a kid, my mum used to tell me I was a worrier. That was her nice way of explaining why I welded myself to her leg whenever we went out, or called her in the middle of the night to pick me up if I was staying in a friend’s house because I was “sick”.

As kids, and even as adults, we avoid things that make us sad, scared or unsettled, and seek out things that make us happy, excited and content. It’s as if the world values our shiny, happier feelings but turns a blind eye to our (very normal) painful feelings.

The reality is that no one navigates through life without facing obstacles, fears and difficult times, yet we perceive negative emotions as something we should avoid at all costs, rather than something we should explore, accept and deal with. This is instilled in us from early childhood and tends to stay with us throughout our lives.


The first thing we can do is to view the pandemic through a child's eyes

Children these days deal with a lot. The world is moving very fast and can feel really overwhelming to them sometimes. When I was six, I was eating worms covered in muck in the garden, and the world beyond my house didn’t exist for me. My default setting was to be in the moment.

Now kids take in so much information that they are pulled from the present moment continually throughout their day – it’s a sensory overload for their young brains.

This year especially they have had to face a lot of new changes, but there are techniques that can provide respite. The first thing we can do is to view the pandemic through a child’s eyes. Billy, my nephew, is eight, and while he is being incredibly mature in how he is dealing with the crisis, it is still affecting him. He misses his interaction with his peers – a crucial component of the psychological development of any child. It’s hard for him not to be able to spend time with his granny and grandad and other family members.

But all of these issues can be addressed. Every child will have a subjective response, but the key is to create a line of communication so they can express and not repress it.

The first step in getting your child to open up about their feelings is to acknowledge how normal it is to experience emotions and feelings they may not like. Empathise with the fact that we all experience these varying emotions on any given day.

Relate to them

I've recently written some children's picture books with illustrators Sheena Dempsey and Emma Proctor, and an accompanying podcast series that introduces mindfulness tricks and practical tools that adults can practise with children, such as breathing techniques and meditations to help navigate feelings of anxiety, jealously or anger.

Noticing your child’s emotions and reflecting them with empathy can help your child understand that it’s okay to experience all feelings and to talk about them. A good way to connect with your child in this way is to relate to their emotions. Say that you sometimes feels that way too.

Normalising emotion has never been more important than it is now. The uncertainties and anxieties adults are facing are being absorbed by kids, too. They feel it all, and it’s important to make space for their uncertainties, vulnerabilities and fears.

The word "resilience" is used a lot, but I prefer the term "psychological flexibility"

Exploring mindfulness techniques that allow children to express themselves and recognise that they can work with, rather than against, these emotions empowers their sense of self when dealing with fear, sadness and anger. Their curiosity and open minds already cultivate the very foundations of mindfulness, making them perfect students.

From an early age most of us were taught to brush off emotions that made us uncomfortable, but these are the emotions we can learn most about ourselves from.

The word “resilience” is used a lot, but I prefer the term “psychological flexibility”. Resilience feels a bit binary, like you either have it or don’t. Life is not a straight line, and in fact most of our suffering comes from the belief that it should be.

Teaching young people the realities of this is important. They have to struggle at times, they have to be tested. They can’t be moulded into believing life is all one big inspirational meme. But it is also important to remind them that they can always talk to someone if they are feeling sad, anxious or frustrated about things.

Don’t suppress

It’s important to teach children not to suppress or ignore difficult feelings, but to teach them how to sit with and explore uncomfortable emotions, which is at the core of mindfulness practices.

It’s often referred to as “conscious awareness”: being fully aware of how you’re responding, rather than automatically letting the emotion overwrite any logical or rational thought.

Anger (and frustration) is something we have all felt this year, particularly kids

Practising this from an early age can become something like a superpower as kids get older. Introducing techniques such a as The Chill Skill, outlined below, will help kids get into a routine of using these exercises more and more when they are feeling angry or frustrated rather than acting on it straight away.

My latest book is about teaching kids to find that space so they can choose their own response when dealing with the feeling of anger. Anger (and frustration) is something we have all felt this year, particularly kids as their entire routines changed overnight in March.

This quote by the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl that has influenced me and my work over the past few years: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

It might not be a quote you’d expect to inspire a children’s book, but to me this is what mindfulness is, and this is why it’s so powerful. Teaching kids to find this space between their experiences and how they react is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.


We all get angry from time to time, especially when we can’t have the things we want or when somebody upsets us. The Chill Skill is a great way to help you calm down and solve problems. Just say this poem out loud:

When you feel the angry flame,
Calm it down with this game.
Don't get mad or scream and shout,
Ten deep breaths will put it out.

The Chill Skill by Niall Breslin, illustrated by Emma Proctor, will be published by Gill Books on October 16th, €16.99.The accompanying podcast series, Niall Breslin's Mindful Moments for Children, can be found on Youtube, Spotify and all the major audio apps from October 12th