By Dr. Muniya Khanna

From “The Resilience Recipe Blog.” Translating everything we know about resilience building and anxiety management in children from decades of research into practical steps that you can use at home. 

Why Building Emotional Intelligence is the crucial first step to building Resilience

Ancient philosophies have long identified the need to develop awareness of their internal experience as the critical path towards living enlightened, or, living with a sense of peace. Philosophers have argued for thousands of years that humans are capable of more than going through the motions of life reacting to outside forces, and that finding inner peace involved knowing this. Buddhist philosophy, Yogic philosophy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2011), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (Linehan, 2014), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and so many other world philosophies and theories of human personality have all included methods to hone and practice awareness. 

Many of us find ourselves in reaction mode – simply going from situation to gut reaction. This creates the sense that we have no control over our inner experience – the world is acting on us, it makes us feel how we feel, and we are just trying to react in whatever way we can to survive.  

But our mind and our bodies are always working to maintain our health and well-being — judging, responding and adapting.  Awareness of these processes gives us tremendous agency over our experience.  

You can see why CBT would consider awareness of one’s internal experience, or emotional intelligence, as a necessary skill for building resilience. Being an expert of our beliefs, thoughts, stories, our biological makeup and vulnerabilities, our habits and patterns of behavior and responses, and awareness of where they come from and what drives them, gives us distance from the immediate situation. Awareness of how we usually react and the ability to “listen” to our internal experience instead of just experience it as it unfolds, gives us the time and space needed to not “react” but choose our response. Instead of just reacting from our “gut,” we can choose how we want to think and how we would like to respond.   We can choose to keep things in perspective, adapt, try again, bounce back – be resilient

CBT breaks our internal processes down into categories – cognitive (thoughts), behavioral (learning/actions), and biological/physiological – to help us organize our understanding of all the forces in play at any given moment.  We are who we are, and feel what we feel, and do what we do in each situation, because of the interplay of these three things: our thoughts, what we have learned through ongoing and past experiences, and our biology. 

Over time, we develop enduring patterns of interpretation of events (these become our stories) and enduring patterns of reacting physiologically and emotionally (feelings) that produce patterns of behavior (actions) that are either adaptive (working well for us) or maladaptive (not working well for us). 

Where to begin: Thinking about thinking

When we assume that the world is acting on us and we are just living in response, we lose the opportunity to create our experience. We find ourselves in struggle – just trying to stay above water – going moment by moment experiencing emotions and feeling helpless in what happens next. 

If we listen to, instead of react to our thoughts, we get the time and space needed to decide our focus, or choose our interpretation. This is being aware of our thoughts.  If we have awareness, we can disagree with our initial instinct or what we call in CBT our “automatic thought.” And because we know how powerful our thoughts are in influencing our emotions and behaviors, this would mean that we also have the power to choose our emotional response as well as our behavioral response. This is our superpower – we can choose our response.  

This is an incredibly powerful and key element for human well-being. It means we can create the experiences we want, rather than waiting for circumstances to create our experience. Creating the life we choose, rather than taking an approach of succumbing to life as it presents itself.  

Kids are vulnerable to giving in to the idea that we are just responding to the world rather than in control of our response more quickly than adults because of their level of cognitive development and their more limited life experience. They are in the developmental stage of moving from concrete thinking to more abstract thinking but are still very black and white – seeing things as good or bad, right or wrong, in their control or out of their control – when interpreting events and choosing their response. They also do not have as much ability to think long-term – not usually thinking about what their response would mean for their future or how it’s impacting their own growth and character development. 

But they still have the same superpower. They do have the ability to choose their response. We want to give them the gift of awareness of this power – show them how in control they are of their moment. We want to help them understand the connection between their mind, body, feelings and behaviors. Help them become aware of their own patterns – the way their body responds to different emotions, which thoughts pop up in different situations, and which behaviors have become habits – and to observe them without judgement. We want to help them understand that while we don’t have the power to control others, or the world around us, we do have the power to control the direction and focus of our thoughts and, from there, our subsequent actions. Which means that we have the power to create our experience.  

Conversation Starter: Just because you thought it, doesn’t mean you think it

            Here’s an example or “conversation starter” of how you can introduce the concept of thinking about thinking to your child. Notice in the example that you’re using a situation that is neutral – not something your child is immediately struggling with – but a situation they can relate to and have some experience with. This takes the blame/judgement out of the idea of useful and not useful thoughts and makes it easier to agree to the idea of listening to self-talk or our inner voice. 

It’s easy to think that our feelings come from whatever situation we are in.  Like you might assume, if you’re at a birthday party with friends (fill in any type of event that your child enjoys), that because you’re in that situation you will feel happy. But it’s really how you’re thinking about the situation (your self-talk) that makes you feel the way you feel – no matter what the situation. Take the birthday party as an example – can you imagine that not everyone at the party is feeling happy? Even though they are all at a party, everyone is feeling something different. It might be that someone is feeling nervous because they don’t know any of the other kids and not sure how to make friends. Someone else might be bored because they don’t like the kinds of activities at the party. Someone else might be sad because they didn’t get picked to be on the team they wanted when the kids were playing games. These kids all feel differently – not because they are in a different situation – it’s because they are all thinking about different things. They feel differently based on what they are focused on.  It’s not just the situation that makes us feel a certain way, it’s what we are thinking about the situation that makes us feel that way.”

 In the moment it seems like whatever thought pops up is just true. Like that’s just the situation we’re in and that’s all there is to it. But there are a million things that are also true in every situation and maybe even more true. Remember, just because you thought it, doesn’t mean you think it!”  

We can share with them that we don’t have to just react to situations, we can challenge our initial “automatic” response and choose our response. We don’t have to just react to situations, we can choose our perspective. We can choose our focus – choose to focus on what we do have, and what we can do, rather than what we are lacking. We can choose to not give up. We can choose to be resilient. 

In my next post, I’ll talk more about thinking about our thinking. In the meantime, you can start listing or writing down your child’s most common worry thoughts or sad thoughts. This will be good information for when you want to start helping them identify patterns of thinking. We know that even our thinking becomes habit over time. 

Learn more about how to teach awareness and compassion and become a resilience expert yourself by reading Khanna & Kendall (2021). The Resilience Recipe: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids in the Age of Anxiety. New Harbinger. This post contains excerpts from Khanna & Kendall (2021). The Resilience Recipe: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids in the Age of Anxiety. New Harbinger


  • Dr. Muniya Khanna

    Author, Researcher, Clinical Psychologist

    The OCD & Anxiety Institute

    Dr. Khanna is a clinical psychologist and researcher specializing in the treatment and study of anxiety and OCD. Dr. Khanna has been involved in some of the most important research in the field of child anxiety in the last 15 years. This published research has established what is now the gold-standard treatments children and adolescents used in hospitals, clinics and schools around the world. She is a pioneer in web-based mental health research having spent the last decade working towards improving access to evidence-based mental health services in under-resourced populations by leveraging technology. Dr. Khanna is author of “The Worry Workbook for Kids” with Dr. Deborah Ledley and co-author with Dr. Phil Kendall, of The CAT Project treatment manual for CBT for anxiety in adolescents as well as their upcoming book, “The Resilience Recipe: Raising Fearless Kids in the Age of Anxiety.”