We spend a lot of time talking about the importance of physical strength-building exercise for kids. But rarely do we invest as much time talking about mental exercises.
That’s unfortunate, because mental strength is the key to reaching your greatest potential. After all, what does it matter if your child is smart, athletic, or talented if they can’t persevere when the going gets tough? How successful can your kids really become if they’re timid and insecure?
Kids aren’t born mentally strong. But they are all born with the capacity to build mental muscle. We just have to teach them how.
As the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, I spend a fair amount of time talking about how to give up the common parenting habits that rob kids of mental strength— like preventing kids from making mistakes or condoning a victim mentality. Giving up those unhealthy habits will make your mental muscle-building strategies much more effective.
So what are the mental strength-building strategies that help kids grow stronger? Here are three things you can do to create an environment that fosters your children’s resilience.
1. Teach your kids to think realistically
An overconfident kid won’t study for a test because he’ll think, “This is going to be easy.” But a kid who lacks confidence won’t put in much effort because he’ll think, “I’m going to fail so there’s no use trying.”
If you want your child to put in his or her best effort, teach them to develop a realistic inner dialogue. A child who can recognize their limitations, while still acknowledging the power of their effort, will go far in life.
Ask questions that will help your child see things in a slightly different light. For example, if he or she insists they’ll never make the basketball team, ask, “What can you do to increase your chances of success?”
Or, if they say something like, “No one ever wants to be friends with me,” encourage them to look for exceptions. Ask, “What’s one time when someone did want to be friends with you?” Help them see that their assumptions may be distorted and their conclusions may be inaccurate.
2. Praise their efforts, not their achievements
I’ve worked with many parents in my psychotherapy office who think they’re building their kids up by saying things like, “Great job scoring two baskets in the game,” or “I’m so proud of you for getting an A on your science test.” But reserving praise for positive outcomes sends the wrong message.
A child who thinks achievement is the ultimate goal will fear doing things where they might fail. They won’t try new things because they won’t be guaranteed success. So rather than try out for the soccer team or pick up a new hobby, they’ll limit their activities.
Praising kids only for their accomplishments also teaches them they must succeed at all costs. So a child may cheat to win or treat others unkindly to get ahead.
Praise your child for their effort. Say things like, “All that practicing you’ve been doing is really paying off,” or “I’m so proud of you for studying so hard for your test.” When you make it clear that you value effort — and it’s okay to fail — your child will be more likely to persist, even during the toughest of challenges.
3. Give them skills to manage their emotions
Many parents are quick to tell kids to “calm down” or “quit worrying.” Others are quick to regulate their kids’ emotions for them.
When their kids are bored they entertain them. Or, when they’re sad they cheer them up.
Consequently, kids aren’t learning the skills they need to regulate their own emotions. In fact, studies show 60% of college students say they lack the emotional skills to deal with life after high school.
To reach their greatest potential in life, kids need emotional regulation skills. After all, how successful can an athlete be if he or she can’t control their temper? Or how far will your child go in the corporate world if they can’t face their fear of rejection?
Proactively teach your child how to deal with sad feelings or how to calm themself down when they’re upset. Brainstorm coping skills together. While one child may find coloring boosts his mood, another child may say listening to upbeat music helps her the most.
Help your kids identify what works for them. Teach them that they don’t always need to be happy, and that they can face uncomfortable emotions head-on. But make it clear that they can gain control over their emotions — their emotions don’t need to control them.
Work yourself out of a job
Mentally strong kids grow up to become competent adults who are equipped to tackle whatever challenges life throws their way. The ultimate goal of parenting should be to work yourself out of a job.
It takes a mentally strong parent to raise kids who are strong enough to stand on their own two feet. So work on building your mental muscle and make mental strength-building exercises a priority for the whole family.