How To Make Your Child Mentally Strong
Mental strength doesn’t mean acting tough or holding back your tears when you’re hurt. It’s about dealing confidently with life’s challenges and bouncing back from setbacks.
By Aruna Raghuram • 13 min read
When she was just 16 years old, Sudha Chandran met with an accident. Although her leg had to be amputated, it did not deter the gutsy teenager. She had a Jaipur foot fixed, and went on to become an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer and a TV star.
Arunima Sinha, a national volleyball player, wanted to join the Indian paramilitary forces. One fateful day, she was pushed from a running train by robbers. Her left leg had to be amputated and she had multiple fractures in the spinal cord. Despite this tragedy, Arunima rose to great heights—she became the world’s first female amputee to scale Mt Everest.
The stories of Sudha and Arunima tell us that people can be mentally strong—and incredibly so. What was their childhood like? What did their parents do right? How did these youngsters develop the mental strength to overcome adversity?
Understanding mental strength
Before delving into strategies to build mental toughness, let’s explore what mental strength is. Mentally strong children find solutions to their problems, endure hardships and bounce back from adversity. Grit, self-discipline and resilience are all facets of mental strength. So are impulse control and the ability to resist temptation.
Psychologist Dr Peter Clough and businessman Doug Strycharczyk, authors of the book ‘Developing Mental Toughness’, describe mental toughness as: “A personality trait which determines, in large part, how people respond to challenge, stress and pressure, irrespective of their circumstances.”
According to them, the four pillars of mental toughness are:
- Challenge: seeing challenge as an opportunity
- Confidence: having high levels of self-belief
- Commitment: being able to stick to tasks
- Control: believing everyone has control over their destiny
Peter and Doug also see mental toughness as the ability to view change positively and embrace it in order to develop. Interestingly, Peter has found that mentally tough children perform better academically and are also less likely to indulge in anti-social activities.
But don’t confuse mental strength with suppressing emotions. Speaking exclusively to ‘ParentCircle’, Amy Morin, psychologist, social worker and author of ‘13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do’, says: “Mental strength is what you need to reach your greatest potential, during good times and bad. It has three parts: regulating your thoughts (not overly positive or negative, but thinking realistically); controlling your emotions (you have control over how you feel, you can take steps to calm yourself down when angry); and taking positive action. It’s all about choices you make every day.”
Building mental muscle: 12 strategies
Here are some ideas—a few are linked to Peter and Doug’s four pillars—for developing your child’s mental strength.
Let your child make mistakes. You probably hate to see your child make mistakes and suffer the consequences. But learning from mistakes is one of the best ways that children can develop mental strength. Say, your teenager sleeps through the alarm and misses a class test. When he gets a zero in the test, he’ll learn to be more responsible the next time around.
Don’t let your child feel ashamed or embarrassed about making a mistake. Instead, get him to think about what he has learnt from it and what he could do better next time. This way he learns that he’s in control of his destiny.
Avoid rushing to her rescue. Whether she’s moving to a different section in school, trying to make new friends or getting lower grades in tests, allow your child to deal with the situation. Coming to your child’s rescue every time she’s struggling will only make her feel helpless. By allowing her to work out solutions, you’re helping her develop confidence. However, stick around to provide help if needed.
Help him deal with his fears. Children are afraid of many things—sleeping alone, insects or public speaking. Encourage your child to face his fears and gradually get over them. Praise him for his bravery as he tries to overcome his fears. Also, it’s important that your child knows how you deal with your fears. Every opportunity to overcome a fear is a challenge.
Urge her to think realistically. Sports psychologist Sara Robinson in an article on afineparent.com talks about helping your child reframe her thoughts. “Reframing, or ‘flip the coin’, is a cognitive strategy that helps to look at the situation from a different perspective,” she writes. Tell your child to write down negative thoughts on one side of a paper, she advises. Then let her find another version for each thought. For instance, if she’s struggling to learn to play a complex new piece on the piano, encourage her to break up the piece into smaller achievable sections that she can practise and master before she puts it all together. This will also help her learn the value of commitment.
Teach him to regulate emotions. Preparing your child emotionally for adulthood means frequently talking about feelings. “Feelings aren’t either all good or all bad. Every emotion can be a friend or enemy sometimes. For example, anger is a friend when it helps you stand up to social injustice,” says Amy. “But it might be an enemy if it causes your child to get into a fight and she gets in trouble.” So children need to recognise when emotions are a friend and when they are an enemy.
Saying things like “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow’s test” or “How can you be scared of a little insect?” will only encourage your child to suppress his emotions. Listen keenly when he’s struggling to express his emotions, and validate his feelings, as thoughts and emotions affect actions and decisions. When he learns to regulate his emotions, he feels in control and can take on challenges.
Avoid being too indulgent. Some parents praise their children too much or buy expensive gifts for them or satisfy their every whim. This can lead to a sense of entitlement. And your child may not accept “no” for an answer. But accepting “no” is important because it helps her manage disappointments, and she’ll be more willing to take on challenges. Instead of rewarding her with gifts, offer non-material things like half-an-hour of TV time after she completes her homework.
Teach him the importance of being accountable. Make your child accountable for his actions. This means facing the consequences if he doesn’t behave responsibly. Discourage him from making excuses or blaming others for his poor behaviour. For example, he should be able to discuss a fight he has had with a friend objectively and accept his share of responsibility. When your child feels responsible and accountable, he shows commitment towards a task or activity.
Practise strength-based parenting. Instead of perfection, set realistic expectations from your child. Wanting your child to be the best at whatever she tries her hand at can put undue pressure on her. Instead, encourage her to pursue activities based on her interests and aptitude. A confident child will be able to take on challenges. By laying emphasis on your child’s strengths rather than her weaknesses, you’ll make her develop self-esteem and confidence.
Minimise the importance of external approval. Raising confident children is more of a challenge these days when the number of “likes” on social media can inflate or deflate their self-esteem immeasurably. Teach your child to value himself intrinsically and not depend too much on the approval of others, including peers. This way, he’ll develop self-belief and confidence.
Highlight the importance of gratitude. Feeling grateful for what she has will stop your child from indulging in self-pity when she’s down. Being grateful and positive will make her feel upbeat, and this will encourage her to find a solution to her problem.
Help your child adapt to change. Life’s not predictable—big and small changes are bound to occur in your child’s life. If your child’s best friend moves to another city, he’ll have to accept that and find other good friends. Teaching children early in life that certain things are bound to change will make them adapt to change. Adaptability is an important aspect of mental strength. It will also give them a feeling of control over their lives in times of uncertainty.
Teach her to be kind to herself. Being kind to yourself when you’re feeling low is important to develop mental strength. It will make you pick yourself up and move on, investing renewed energies in whatever needs to be done. If your child has performed poorly in a test, ask her to forgive herself and help her figure out ways to do better next time.
Help your children build mental strength by urging them to persevere and see opportunities even in adversity. While following the various strategies described above, parents need to realise that their unconditional love will make their children feel safe and secure, and help them develop inner strength. Parents can also share stories about how they overcame challenges. Appreciating the efforts of their children and celebrating their victories, however small, are also important.
In a nutshell
- Mentally strong kids are not those who act tough and exhibit defiance.
- Mental strength is a combination of grit, resilience, self-discipline and problem-solving abilities.
- Letting your child make mistakes and face his fears, encouraging him to think realistically and guiding him in regulating his emotions are some ways to help him build mental strength.
What you could do right away
- If your child comes back from play with a twisted ankle, don’t magnify the pain or get anxious. Instead, spray a pain reliever on the site of injury and reassure him that he’ll be fine soon.
- If your child wants to talk to you about a bad day at school, be available to listen without judgement.
- Get your child a journal and ask her to write three things she’s grateful for at the end of each day. This will help develop a positive mindset.
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 06 August 2020.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 22 July 2020.
Dr Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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