A father accompanied his 8-year-old son into my therapy office and said, "I'm so proud of him for being so strong. He hasn't cried once since his grandmother died."
It was a shining example of how mental strength gets misconstrued and turned into a toxic message for kids. Despite this dad's good intentions, his words had the potential to be quite harmful.
"Not crying" isn't a hallmark of strength. In fact, it can often take more courage to shed tears than it does to hold them back. Mental strength involves being acutely aware of your emotions and knowing how to express them in healthy ways--such as crying when you're sad.
The words you use make a big difference. If you're not careful, you might send a message that instills unhealthy habits that could drain kids of the mental strength they need to reach their greatest potential.
Here are five things you should stop saying to kids if you want them to be mentally strong:
1. "It's no big deal."
Whether your child says she's anxious about her upcoming piano recital or she tells you she's concerned her friend is mad at her, don't minimize her concerns by saying, "It's no big deal."
To her, it is a big deal. And she is trying to tell you that she needs help dealing with her emotions.
So rather than insist she shouldn't be concerned, give her the skills she needs to cope with her distress.
2. "Stop crying."
There's nothing wrong with crying. It's a healthy way to express emotions. And one of the reasons so many adults likely apologize when they shed a tear is because they were taught crying is bad.
Of course, if your child is screaming and rolling around in the middle of the grocery store, you'll need to address the inappropriate behavior.
Explain that disrupting other people in the store isn't OK. Just make sure you correct your child's behavior, but not the emotion.
3. "You're the smartest kid in the whole school."
Whether you tell your child he is the best basketball player in the world or you insist he's the smartest kid in the school, exaggerated praise does more harm than good.
Make praise genuine. And focus on the effort more than the achievement.
Emphasize the fact that she studied for a long time or that she hustled hard so she knows you value her effort. If you reserve praise for successful outcomes, she might grow to believe that she needs to win at all costs, even if it means cheating to hurting people to get there.
And, she may think she's only worthy of praise when she excels--which can cause her to back off from trying anything where she might fail.
4. "Everything will work out fine."
It's normal to want to reassure your kids that everything is always going to be OK. But sometimes, things aren't OK. You can't prevent them from encountering hardships--or even tragedies.
Instead of telling them that nothing bad will happen, teach them that they're strong enough to deal with whatever life throws their way. Just make sure you're giving them the coping skills and tools they need to handle life's inevitable challenges.
5. "Calm down."
Saying, "calm down," doesn't exactly create a sense of peace. In fact, most parents say, "Calm down!" out of their own frustration because they want their child to stop carrying on.
But your child is communicating that he's upset. So it's important to make sure you're giving him the skills he needs to calm himself down--after all, you want him to know what to do when you're not there to help him regulate his feelings.
Proactively teach your child skills to de-escalate himself. Whether that means taking a few deep breaths or it means going for a walk, kids need to know how to calm their minds and their bodies.
Then, rather than tell him to calm down, you can remind him of a specific skill that will calm him. Eventually, he'll learn to practice those skills on his own.
Raise Mentally Strong Kids
Every day you have opportunities to either help kids create habits that build mental muscle or habits that will drain them of mental strength. If you catch yourself using these types of phrases, shift your parenting strategies.
It's never too late to begin teaching kids the social and emotional skills they need to succeed. And a few simple shifts to your parenting habits could be instrumental in helping them reach their greatest potential.