R U OK? Dealing with unpleasant emotions

‘Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make people think.’
– Hanna Holborn Gray

R U OK day is today, Thursday 9 September and Jason Ross, our Student Guidance Co-ordinator, and I in the Senior School, began planning to promote the day with a Carey TV segment, where we chatted about mutual interests and recent things we had done.

One of the things I talked about was a book I recently read, titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Jason outlined a two-day National Mental Health Conference he participated in. The standout speaker at the conference was Professor Brock Bastian, a social psychologist from the University of Melbourne, who spoke on the topic ‘Building more resilient adolescents – Why our best intentions are leading us astray.’

Both the book I read and Jason’s workshop suggest that we have become too focussed on creating ‘safe environments’ for our children and young people. Whilst these come from the best intentions, they in fact create less resilient children. 

If children do not experience unpleasant emotions and learn how to deal with them, they cannot manage the risks and challenges they will inevitably face throughout life. Failure is a critical aspect of achievement. Exposure to hardships and problems promotes strengths, and adversity brings people together and enables further building of resilience.

We should NOT be teaching our students that always feeling happy and safe are normal. They are not. If they believe that is what we should always be feeling, it makes matters worse. We should instead be creating a culture of what Professor Bastion refers to as ‘Psychological Safety’. This allows our students to feel okay if they fail, and to be sad and angry, which in turn builds resilience and protects them.

We need to show our students the concept that feelings such as anxiety, pain, feeling down, angry etc are not necessarily bad, and that they can be worked through and overcome. This will increase resilience and their confidence to cope with problems and change. If students are aware these feelings are normal and that they can be dealt with and overcome or accepted then that will enable them to cope far better when calamities occur (the research supports this). We need to expose them to challenging and unsafe environments, rather than avoid them.

Haidt and Lukianoff summarise it all in one terrific sentence: ‘Build the child for the path, not the path for the child’.

Christian Gregory
Deputy Head of Senior School – Student Welfare

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