When my first book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, hit the shelves, readers kept asking me the same question over and over again: "How do I teach my kids how to be mentally strong?"
I was thrilled to learn so many adults were invested in helping their kids build mental muscle. As a psychotherapist, I've seen countless adults endure years of suffering because they lacked the basic skills they needed to deal with hardships, setbacks, failure, and rejection.
So I was excited to write 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do as a guide to help parents give up the common parenting habits that are robbing kids of mental strength. The sooner we start teaching kids about mental strength, the more equipped they'll be for the realities of adulthood.
Here are five golden rules for raising mentally strong kids.
1. Make it a family priority to take care of your mind.
Most parents talk to kids about the importance of caring for their bodies. They tell them to brush their teeth and they talk about eating healthy and getting exercise. But few parents talk about the importance of caring for their minds.
Make it a priority to build mental muscle too. Perform mental strength exercises as a family and talk about the benefits of becoming mentally stronger.
Also, make it clear that sometimes you might need help from a professional. Just like you visit a dentist to take care of your teeth, you might need to see a therapist to help you take care of your mind.
2. Talk about feelings.
Studies show 60 percent of college students say they were academically prepared for college, but not emotionally prepared. The vast majority of these young adults say they wished their parents had invested more time in teaching them how to deal with uncomfortable feelings, like disappointment, anxiety, and loneliness.
Aside from saying "angry" or "excited," most parents rarely mention feelings. Consequently, kids aren't learning to identify their feelings and aren't gaining the coping skills they need to deal with those feelings.
Incorporate feeling words into your everyday conversations. Acknowledge how you're feeling and help your children identify how they're feeling. Talk about how those emotions affect your decisions and proactively teach them how to manage those emotions in a healthy way.
3. Teach your child how to think realistically.
When your child says "I'll never understand math," it can be tempting to say, "Oh of course you will, honey." But offering words of reassurance without teaching your child how to reassure himself isn't helpful.
When your child expresses self-doubt, excessive self-blame, catastrophic predictions, or exaggeratedly negative thoughts, teach him how to think differently. Show him how to recognize unhelpful thoughts and reframe them in a more realistic way (changing BLUE thoughts to true thoughts is a helpful exercise).
Explain that your thoughts aren't always true and that sometimes it's important to prove your brain wrong. Share how you think sometimes too, and show your child that you don't always listen to your brain. Say something like, "I keep thinking I'm going to mess up when I give that presentation at work. Then, I remind myself that I am prepared and if I work hard, I can do a good job."
4. Role model how to take positive action.
Kids need to know that they can behave contrary to their feelings. In fact, their behavior can change their feelings.
If your child has had a bad day at school, she can choose to do something when she gets home that will help her feel better. Or, if she's upset she got cut from the team, she can choose to practice more so she can get better.
Be a good role model and show your child that you behave contrary to your feelings sometimes. Say things like, "I am feeling kind of tired right now, but I know it's a good choice to go make dinner for us rather than just sit here and watch TV."
5. Actively engage in problem-solving.
It can be tempting to swoop in and solve kids' problems for them. But they need opportunities to practice building problem-solving skills.
Resist the urge to bail your child out when he encounters a problem. Instead, encourage him to develop his own solution. Let him make mistakes sometimes. Natural consequences can be some of life's greatest teachers.
Problem-solve issues together as well. Whether your child is struggling with a specific behavior problem or she is having trouble getting along with the kids at recess, brainstorm at least five solutions as a team. Then, help her choose a solution to try.
Build Mental Strength as a Family
Make it clear that everyone needs mental strength in life--not just kids. Talk about strategies to become mentally stronger and turn mistakes and problems into teachable moments.
Just make sure your kids don't confuse being strong with acting tough. Denying pain or refusing to show emotions isn't strength.
Mental strength involves becoming your best self, and we all have room for improvement. Show your kids that self-development is a priority in your life and you'll make it a priority in their lives too.