Rising Through Resilience: Denise Daniels of The Moodsters On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Model the resilient behavior you want your child to learn. Let kids know that you, too, make mistakes all the time — and when you do, you try again. Let them see you remaining calm in stressful situations, and finding productive solutions. Encourage them to ask questions, and then help them find the answers.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Daniels.
Denise Daniels, RN, MS, creator of the groundbreaking children’s brand The Moodsters, is a Peabody award-winning journalist, author, and parenting and child-development expert dedicated to putting young children on the path to positive mental health. She created The Moodsters — five quirky little feelings detectives who solve the mysteries of emotions — to help children develop the resilience skills and emotional literacy that will enable them to thrive. Denise’s books have reached more than 15 million children, are available in seven languages, and are used by school districts, nonprofits, NGOs, homeless shelters, mental-health clinics, military-based schools, and, of course, families worldwide.
Denise’s newest workbook, Bounce Forward With The Moodsters: A Guide for Kids on Finding Your Strong, Resilient Self (2021) features age-appropriate guidance and engaging interactive exercises to help preschoolers identify their own strengths and develop resilience as they prepare for a school year like no other. Denise’s previous First Aid for Feelings workbook on the coronavirus (2020) was distributed to tens of thousands of children worldwide; Denise’s concurrent media tour generated 900M impressions, as parents, educators, and health-care workers sought ways to help children cope with a rapidly changing world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Not in a million years could I have anticipated living the life I have been so fortunate to have. I’m not speaking from a monetary perspective; I’m talking about a life rich in relationships and opportunities to serve children around the world. There have been many life-changing moments in my career, and just when I think I have reached the pinnacle of my professional life, another extraordinary chance to serve kids presents itself.
Having worked with young children as a pediatric oncology nurse, I became acutely aware of an overwhelming and unmet need to help kids cope with grief and loss. I learned so much by taking care of those courageous children who were facing end of life. To this day I remember each and every one of them. It was their bravery that inspired me to establish the National Childhood Grief Institute, a nonprofit organization that provided resources and counseling for children worldwide who had experienced many kinds of loss. I liken that experience to giving birth to a full-grown child! With the guidance of the late Fred Rogers, our grief groups grew exponentially, and it wasn’t long before we were asked to provide training for schools, the judicial system, physicians, mental health professionals, children’s hospitals, NGOs, and the U.S. military worldwide.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I could never identify “the most interesting story,” but there was a significant turning point when the National Childhood Grief Institute was thrust onto a global stage during the Gulf War. This was the moment when moms were being deployed for the first time in American history.
I was deeply honored when 4-Star General John Vessey (former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), tapped me to work with the Pentagon to support military moms who would be saying goodbye to their children as they were heading to a war zone for an indefinite tour of duty. This experience provided me the opportunity to travel to military bases to help children cope with the absence of their military moms who were serving in the Gulf.
In the midst of this global crisis, the Wall Street Journal featured a story about a workbook we had written for military families. The article caught the eye of renowned publisher Peter Workman, who requested to publish the workbook. This led to participating in a PBS special to help kids understand war. General Vessey was a guest on our special, which went on to win a prestigious Peabody award.
All of this made me realize that we have an important story to tell about helping children recognize the big emotions they feel and learn how to manage them. This became the foundation and the mission of the children’s brand I created, The Moodsters.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am often asked what differentiates The Moodsters from other kids’ entertainment brands. I actually love this question because the answer is both simple and complex: We’re the only children’s brand based on science.
In 1991, I became the first parenting expert for the Today show. Through my work on Today, I met a bright and compassionate pediatrician: Dr. Randall Kaye, director of Pfizer’s Pediatric Health Care Team. He asked if I would be interested in partnering with Pfizer to develop a training program to help pediatric residents support their young patients undergoing complicated medical procedures such as bone marrow transplants, chemo, and spinal taps. I agreed and began assembling my team. The late Dr. Candace Pert (considered to be the mother of mind-body medicine, and a leading neuro research scientist from NIH and Georgetown University Medical School) was pioneering a new field of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology (PIN). Her knowledge of science was invaluable to my work with pediatric patients. We were literally teaching young patients to control their own brain chemistries, resulting in improved patient outcomes.
Together, Dr. Pert and I collaborated to develop First Aid for Feelings, a pediatric health care assessment program for physicians. Our program was widely used by Pfizer Pediatric Health Care teams across the country, and in ten U.S. medical schools. We discovered that the patients of physicians who employed the First Aid for Feelings program sustained shorter hospitalizations and required less pain medication, resulting in improved pediatric patient outcomes.
As I developed The Moodsters, I was very fortunate to have the guidance and support of renowned researchers and psychologists Dr. Marc Brackett and Dr. Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Their ground-breaking research and dedication to children’s emotional literacy has and continues to impact entire generations of children. They have been my inspiration and their important research has been the foundation for my work with children around the globe.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
As you can see from my previous answers, I can never tell my story without talking about the mentors who’ve helped, taught, and inspired me! Dr. Candace Pert, Dr. Marc Brackett, and Dr. Robin Stern were and are absolutely invaluable: their research and their expertise helped me ground The Moodsters in science and create a product that doesn’t just amuse or entertain children but teaches them critical life skills and puts them on a path to positive mental health.
General Vessey offered me an extraordinary opportunity to reach thousands of children around the world at a critical time. This brought visibility to this important work of helping children deal with what might otherwise be overwhelming emotions.
But of course there’s a special place in my heart for one of my earliest mentors, Fred Rogers, also known as the beloved Mr. Rogers. No one provided a better model of speaking to kids honestly and empathetically than Fred Rogers, and I still quote him to this day: “What’s mentionable is manageable.” That’s why it is so important to have open, understanding, and non-judgmental conversations with even the youngest of children. That’s the beginning of resilience.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Simply put, resilience is the ability to adapt well to life’s challenges. People who are resilient are curious and courageous, and they trust their own instincts. They have stronger connections to others, and they are better equipped to handle life’s inevitable setbacks. They remain calm, learn from mistakes, and remain positive and optimistic when facing obstacles. They can regulate their emotions and they are problem solvers. They know the importance of showing gratitude. And they can rebuild their lives following a catastrophe. Even though we’re not born resilient, resilience is a set of skills that can be nurtured throughout a lifetime.
And now, more than ever, is when adults and children need to strengthen their resilience skills. No one could have prepared us to face such life-altering changes as we’ve endured these past few years. The ripple effect from the trauma of the pandemic may not be fully understood for years to come. But we need to help kids and the grown-ups who love them identify their own strengths and the sources of support that will enable them to thrive and bounce forward after a time of isolation, loss, and physical and emotional challenges.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is an important characteristic of resilience, and the presence of courage helps increase resilience. Science teaches us that courage or bravery is impacted by both nature and nurture. Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but triumphing over it.” And as with resilience, it is possible to develop your own courage. When you try something new, accept and learn from your inevitable mistakes, and keep on trying — that’s courage, and that helps build resilience.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My father set an example of resilience for my sisters and me. I am the daughter of a member of the Greatest Generation, and he was my inspiration. He was altruistic and he modeled kindness, courage, and compassion. He led by example. It wasn’t until his funeral at Arlington Cemetery when the chaplain placed a flag of honor on my mother’s lap that we learned he had had flown 31 bombing missions over Germany during WW 11, three of which were on D-Day. He was resolute in his belief that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to (even when I wasn’t so sure myself!), and that I was stronger than I thought.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
There was one experience where it didn’t require someone else telling me it might be impossible — I was doing a good enough job of that myself!
In 2004, a tsunami ravaged Southeast Asia, tens of thousands were reported dead or missing, and there was immense destruction throughout the whole region. In Sri Lanka, thousands of orphans were living in makeshift refugee camps along the western and southern coast of the country, and the U.S. State Department and the Sri Lankan Embassy asked if my team could help provide mental health services for these children.
I did quite a bit of soul searching over this. Having had the opportunity during Desert Storm to provide emotional support at such a critical juncture in children’s lives, as well as in the history of our nation, was truly humbling. But I thought about being in a war zone, or in a refugee camp with thousands of traumatized children. I’m a girl who travels to Africa with 11 suitcases and a butane curling iron in hand! I wondered if I had what it would take to lead a team of crisis counselors into a disaster zone to work with kids facing devastating circumstances.
I thought a lot about my faith during those experiences, and the scripture “Many are called, but few are chosen” kept popping into my head. From the work I’d already done with children, I knew that it only takes one caring grown-up to make a difference in a child’s life. This experience made me realize that I wanted to be that grown-up.
Upon landing in Sri Lanka, we quickly realized we were the only boots on the ground. My team (which consisted of 15 exceptionally gifted pediatric nurses, child psychologists, three interns, and the late Lisa Simon, executive producer of Sesame Street) had been dispatched to a complete disaster zone. To make it even more challenging, the State Department warned me that there had been recent reports of terrorists bombing the capital and landmines planted in the Northern Province. They also informed me that terrorists had stolen Red Cross trucks and had been running guns to the north and kidnapping little girls from the Catholic orphanages.
When I take a team into a crisis situation, my role is to provide emotional support and care for my team, as well as for the children we are serving. Upon entering a refugee camp I carry a soccer ball under my arm and blow soap bubbles. This helps put the children at ease as they are traumatized and language can be a barrier. This trip was different: There was a total lack of resources and we were the only team on the ground. We had over 3,000 kids in just one camp. The odds were against us and I would be less than honest if I told you that I did not have trepidation in my heart!
I was acutely aware of my responsibility for the team’s safety, as well as for the safety of the children. I refer to these times as God Moments. It’s when I realize I’m in over my head and I need to have a talk with the “Big Guy” and ask for protection for my team, for courage as a leader, for strength, and for tender mercies for the kids who are suffering. Using an important resilience skill such as self-talk (a skill I teach little kids in a clinical setting), I told myself, “I’ve got this! I can do this!” It helped me overcome my own fear and provided the courage and confidence I needed to be an effective leader when the challenges seemed insurmountable.
We stayed in Sri Lanka for three weeks, working and playing with the children, tending to their physical and mental wounds, sometimes just giving hugs, and distributing the food and clothes and toys that had been donated by the thousands and which we’d brought over in a 747. Of course, Lisa’s Sesame Street t-shirts and toys were the biggest hit of all! I wish I could gather with all those children — now adults — to see how they’re doing today.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
When my three children were small, our family home in Minnesota burned to the ground on Christmas Eve. It started with a spark from our fireplace, and my husband and I just barely had time to scoop the kids out of bed and get out before the whole house went up in flames. The last thing we saw was the burning Christmas tree explode through the front window. It was 33 degrees below zero outside. And yet, that was the most meaningful Christmas I ever had in my life.
Through this terrible event, our children experienced extraordinary kindness from complete strangers, and learned the meaning of empathy in a way that I never could have taught them. People came caroling at my mother’s house, where we’d taken refuge. Small children got dressed up and brought their own Christmas gifts to give to my kids. People who didn’t even live in our community brought us food and clothes and blankets.
My children saw that everything we had was gone — but they learned that the things that are important in life are not your “things”! And we all developed an attitude of gratitude that has stayed with us our whole lives.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
This is hard for me to talk about, but I had ADD as a child — in a time when there was no diagnosis for that, and when teachers taught in only one way. So I grew up thinking I was stupid. I could never sit still in class; I wiggled all the time. And while my friends breezed through their homework, I struggled to keep up. At parent-teacher conferences, the teachers would tell my parents, “Denise has a lot of friends, and she always has something to say — just not at the right time.” But my dad always said to me, “I know you’re really smart. You can do this!” Every child should have a parent who believes in them, even when they don’t believe in themselves.
Fortunately, I developed self-esteem because I did have a lot of friends and I had a big heart. All my friends’ parents liked me. And I finally figured out where I needed to be: serving kids. So after college I went to nursing school — even though I hated needles and couldn’t stand the sight of blood! (That’s when I knew God had a sense of humor.) I graduated at the top of my class. It was the first time in my life that I felt I might be smart. At my graduation, my dad said, “See? I told you you weren’t dumb!”
The unexpected thing I discovered in nursing school was that I loved science. That’s why, years later when I was creating a social-emotional learning brand for young children, it was extremely important to me that it be based on science.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
I appreciate your describing resilience that way because people are quick to use the phrase “Children are resilient” as if they’re magically imbued with resilience at birth. They’re not. (I’m not discounting children’s innate ability to endure the childbirth process and those first few months with parents who are learning as they go!) But, indeed, resilience can be developed and grow over a lifetime.
I’m going to focus on 5 tips that parents and caregivers can use to help children grow their own resilience skills.
- It only takes one loving grown-up to make a difference — be that grown-up. Provide a loving, safe space for the child where you can have honest conversations without judgment. Let your child know that all their feelings are okay!
- Model the resilient behavior you want your child to learn. Let kids know that you, too, make mistakes all the time — and when you do, you try again. Let them see you remaining calm in stressful situations, and finding productive solutions. Encourage them to ask questions, and then help them find the answers.
- Help children identify their feelings — and teach strategies to manage them. Use pictures in kids’ books to help them recognize emotions, especially the big ones like fear, anger, sadness. Then teach simple strategies for managing those emotions: taking slow, deep breaths. Counting to 10. Using positive self-talk to calm fears or lose the blues. And remind them to, as Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” When something bad happens, there are always good people who want to make it better.
- Foster kids’ ability to solve problems for themselves. First, think positively: “I can do this!” Then, try breaking the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks. Think about one good thing you’re learning from this problem (“I left my lunch at home today, but I won’t do that again: I’ll put up a sticky note tomorrow”).
- Finally, encourage children to set goals for the future — and identify the steps it will take to get there. By keeping their “eyes on the prize,” kids can pick themselves up after stumbling because they have something to work toward. Explain that each goal requires a series of smaller steps. Want to get better at soccer? Watch the pros, listen to the coach, and above all: practice!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think there’s nothing we need more urgently than a movement of empathy. Empathy is not only a cornerstone of emotional intelligence; it is a cornerstone of a civilized society — yet we seem to be lacking in both empathy and civility right now.
Interestingly, babies are hard-wired for empathy. Have you ever been in a hospital nursery when one baby starts crying? They all start crying! The neural pathway for empathy is open at a young age — but it can close, too, unless we continue to practice it. This is why The Moodsters are all about teaching children to recognize not only their own emotions, but the emotions of others. How do you create true human connections without an understanding of what others are going through?
A society can’t survive, much less thrive, when its members are operating on an “I’ve got mine” mentality. Empathy improves everyone’s emotional well-being and enables us all to work toward a greater good.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
If I could have a meal with anyone I chose, it actually wouldn’t be with a prominent business or political leader. It would be with the children I worked with in the weeks after 9/11. These included children who were attending the school closest to the site, and who witnessed the horrific spectacle of people jumping from the buildings. No child should ever have to experience that. And no child should have to experience the loss of a parent or loved one under such unfathomable circumstances.
It was both a tragedy and the privilege of my life to be present for those children. I remember each one. Twenty years later, they are now young adults. And I would love to gather those young people and hear them talk about their lives. How they moved forward in life, how they processed those events and then created their own life narrative. How they learned to be resilient, as I hope they did.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please join us at TheMoodsters.com!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!