We've all heard that old parenting cliché "if your friend jumped off a cliff, would you, too?" Maybe we've even said it to our own kids, trying to make the point that thinking and making decisions for themselves is a vital life skill. But asking that hypothetical question isn't enough to teach your children not to be doormats. Call it inner strength, confidence, self-assurance, tenacity, pluck, or grit . . . whatever term you choose, what it means is that no matter what life throws at our children (and we all know it will throw its fair share of ugliness), they'll be able to take it, brush it off, and keep on moving, still believing in themselves as much as they ever had.
Mental strength isn't about acting physically tough, unemotional, or unkind, it's about being resilient and having the courage and confidence to remain focused and positive. It's about being sure-footed enough in your own beliefs and actions that you're able to stand up to those who would throw you off course without fear. Here are seven concrete parenting steps you should be taking to help your kids find their own inner strength.
- Help your kids build a value system. Making good, albeit difficult choices is a lot easier when you have a concrete value system to guide those decisions. Help your children build a moral compass by teaching them about the importance of honesty, compassion, kindness, and fairness.
- Let your child make mistakes and face consequences. Some of the best lessons we learn in life are from the mistakes we make. While it might be tempting to shelter your child from taking a wrong path, doing so robs kids of the chance to learn that they shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed of making a mistake, but instead should learn from it and therefore be less likely to repeat it.
- Encourage your child to face fears and let them experience struggle. Help your child face conquerable fears (think dark rooms, animals, and strangers). Encourage, praise and reward your children's efforts, and you're teaching them that they're brave and capable, even when they're out of their comfort zone. Similarly, allow your child to struggle with a new sport or a homework assignment with your support and gentle guidance (instead of swooping in and taking over, which reinforces that they can't do it on their own). Success after a struggle is a huge builder of mental strength.
- Talk about the importance of personal responsibility. Teaching your kids that they must take responsibility for their own actions is a huge part of being mentally tough. Don't allow your child to blame others or make silly excuses when they're caught misbehaving. Instead, teach them that taking responsibility is a show of strength, not weakness.
- Teach and model optimistic and realistic thinking over negativity. Kids feel the same kind of self-doubt and pessimism as adults do, so teach them how to reframe those thoughts. Instead of "I'll never be a good reader," explain that they should instead tell themselves, "If I work hard, practice, and keep trying, I will improve my reading."
- Help your children learn to manage their emotions and emotional responses. It's often easy to negate our child's emotions. Perhaps they're scared of a big slide at the playground that they loved last year, and your response is, "Don't be silly; that's not scary." Unintentionally, you're teaching them to ignore their emotions. Instead, validate their feelings and teach them how to handle them appropriately. "I can tell you're feeling scared and anxious of the slide right now. Would it help if I waited for you at the bottom? Or maybe we could come back tomorrow and try again?" This gives your children a better understanding of how to deal with their emotions and more confidence in their ability to handle and move past discomfort.
- Be a positive-action role model. Kids need to learn that when they're in an uncomfortable situation, taking positive action is the best way out. Not only can you help by talking about your own personal goals and the steps you're taking to grow stronger, but you can also help your child do the same by not always micromanaging their activities and struggles, instead letting them make choices on their own. Giving them the space to face fears, persevere, and take a stance even when it's unpopular teaches them that they can handle being uncomfortable. And that realization will make them strong.