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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.
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?
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 that 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:
Peter and Doug also see mental toughness as the ability to view change positively and embrace it 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:
1. Regulating your thoughts - not overly positive or negative, but thinking realistically.
2. Controlling your emotions - you have control over how you feel, you can take steps to calm yourself down when angry.
3. Taking positive action - It's all about the choices you make every day.
Here are some ideas linked to Peter and Dougs' 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 on 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 learned 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 such as 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, your child must know 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 practice 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 recognize 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 is 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 behavior. 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.
Practice strength-based parenting
Instead of perfection, set realistic expectations for 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 emphasizing your child's strengths rather than her weaknesses, you'll make her develop self-esteem and confidence.
Minimize 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 realize 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.