A couple of years ago, a father came into my therapy office with his 9-year-old son and said, "I'm so proud of him for being so strong. He's only cried a few times since Grandma died." Sadly, comments like that from parents aren't that unusual.
In my book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do, I share how to give up the common parenting habits that are robbing kids of mental strength. When parents give up these habits, they can help kids develop the mental strength they need to reach their greatest potential.
Here are five signs you're teaching your kids to act tough, rather than be mentally strong:
1. You encourage them to suppress their emotions.
Every time you say, "Quit crying," or "Stop acting like a baby," you're implying your child's feelings are wrong. Similarly, if you say, "Wow, you didn't even cry when I dropped you off at daycare today! Good job," you send a message that feeling upset is bad.
Mental strength building tip: Label your child's feelings and validate his emotions. Say things like, "I see you're really nervous about your dance recital," or "I know you are sad we can't go to the movies today. I feel sad when I don't get to do things I really want to do too." This will teach your child to name his emotions.
2. You correct their emotions, instead of their behavior.
Kids need consequences for their behavior, not for their emotions. So don't send your child to time-out for being upset. Send him to time-out for screaming loudly and disrupting everyone.
Mental strength building tip: Teach your child the difference between feelings and behavior. Say things like, "It's OK to feel angry but it's not OK to throw things," or "It's OK to feel sad but it's not OK to scream and throw yourself on the floor in the grocery store." Proactively teach your child socially appropriate ways to cope with uncomfortable emotions.
3. You deny their pain.
Saying things like, "That didn't hurt," or "Don't be so nervous. It's not a big deal," minimizes a child's feelings. But kids' pain is real--even if it seems disproportionate to the situation.
Mental strength building tip: Show empathy by saying, "I know you felt really scared today," or "I know this is hard for you to do." Teach your child that she can act contrary to her emotions--like stepping on stage for the spelling bee even when she's anxious. Provide praise for being brave when she chooses to face her fears.
4. You praise successful outcomes only.
While it can be tempting to praise your child for getting the most baskets in the game or getting an A on a test, only praising his achievements will teach him that he must succeed to get approval. Over time, he'll put more energy into hiding his mistakes--rather than learning from them--or he'll refuse to engage in activities where he's likely to fail.
Mental strength building tip: Praise the things that are within your child's control--like the effort he put into studying or the hustling he did on the field. Make it clear that you notice his hard work and that you're pleased with him when he puts in his best effort.
5. You prevent your kids from failing.
Correcting your child's homework to ensure she doesn't get any answers wrong or delivering her forgotten soccer cleats so she doesn't miss out on practice teaches her that failure must be prevented at all costs. So rather than learn how to bounce back from rejection or disappointment, she'll depend on you to guarantee her success.
Mental strength building tip: Let your kids make mistakes and fail sometimes. Teach them that they're strong enough to bounce back even better than before. Then, they'll have the confidence to take risks and step outside their comfort zones.
Become a Mental Strength Coach for Your Kids
Kids aren't born knowing how to be mentally strong. But, with your guidance and wisdom, you can teach them how to build the mental muscle they'll need to become their best.
If you see signs your kids are acting tough, take a step back and think about what steps you can take to help them become mentally strong. When you give up the bad habits that rob kids of mental strength, you'll give them the confidence and first-hand experiences they need to face life's toughest challenges head-on.