If you want your kids to succeed in life, teach them to be mentally strong, says psychotherapist Amy Morin.
Mentally strong children are better equipped to confidently handle challenges, and they're more likely to have developed the resilience to bounce back from failure, research shows.
Building your kids' mental strength starts with paying attention to how they think, feel and act, says Morin, the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. Then, devote both time and patience to getting rid of bad habits and reinforcing good ones until they feel natural.
That means being there for them when they struggle or fail, so you can help them assess what went wrong and encourage them as they try to bounce back, Morin says.
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"When they mess up, they need help figuring out, 'How do I learn from this mistake?' Or, 'How can I do better?' rather than thinking, 'Well, clearly, this isn't meant for me,' and giving up," she tells CNBC Make It.
Knowing what mentally strong kids never do can help you identify the types of unhealthy behaviors that may stand in your child's way. Here are seven of them, according to Morin.
1. Mentally strong kids don't avoid challenges
Children are often afraid to try new things, like playing a new sport or instrument, because they don't think they'll be good at it, Morin says. Or, they might try something once and immediately give up if it doesn't go well from the beginning.
But trying difficult things can open up your kids to new skills and offer important lessons on dealing with failure, says Morin.
Teach your kids not to hide from failure, she says. Help them label their feelings, like acknowledging how frustrating it is to struggle with something new. Offer reassurance by saying something like: "You might embarrass yourself, or you might get rejected, or you don't make the team. But that's OK, you're strong enough to handle that."
You can also "praise kids' effort over the outcome," Morin says. If you only offer praise when your child gets an A on a test, or when they score the winning goal in soccer, they might be less likely to try new activities if they don't excel right away.
"Make sure they know that you're just as impressed that they're out there and trying and hustling hard," Morin says.
2. They don't hide their mistakes
Imagine a child adamantly swearing they didn't just sneak a cupcake, despite an obvious dollop of frosting on their face.
Fear of admitting a mistake can push kids to expend unnecessary energy trying to cover it up. They need to understand that "it's OK to make mistakes, and that they can put more energy into learning from them rather than hiding them," Morin says.
You should want your kids to learn from their mistakes, so they can develop new skills and grow as individuals, rather than focusing only on punishment, says Morin. She suggests being more open to discussing mistakes with your children, and asking them how they think they can learn from missteps.
Then, when they admit doing something wrong, "praise them for being honest ... rather than just getting mad at them for whatever it is they admit to you," Morin says.
3. They don't feel sorry for themselves
If your child has a setback, allowing them to voice their feelings of sadness can help them accept their disappointment and move on. As tempting as it may be to cheer your kids up right away, Morin says, you also don't want to dismiss their feelings.
"It's OK to let kids be sad for a while," she says.
But this should only be a temporary state of mind. "You just don't want them to get stuck in that cycle, where they then start exaggerating how bad it is, and they start predicting that they're never going to succeed."
Step in if your child starts speaking excessively negatively, with hyperbolic phrases like, "'I'm the dumbest kid in the world,' or 'I'll never be able to succeed,'" Morin says. Ask them what they'd tell a friend who was having the same crisis of confidence.
"Kids are really quick to say, 'Well, I'd tell my friend to just study, you'll pass [your test] next time,'" she says. "Kids can usually come up with a solution themselves."
4. They don't act like they don't care
There's a difference between acting tough and being mentally strong.
Parents sometimes mistake emotional distress for a lack of mental toughness, advising their kids to not let things bother them so much, Morin says. But that only further buries their issues, rather than helping them work through what's bothering them in a healthy way.
And it's something they can learn from watching you. "It's important for kids to know you have feelings too, or you struggle with certain things," Morin says.
She suggests an exercise to help your kids identify helpful emotions versus harmful ones, so they can pay more heed to the former. Have them ask themselves: Is what I'm feeling right now a friend or an enemy?
5. They don't put other people down to feel better
Disparaging other people to make yourself feel better is a classic sign of low self-esteem. And it could lead to your child developing a reputation as "the mean kid on the playground," Morin says, damaging their relationships with other children.
If you hear your children putting down other people, sit with them and try to get to the root of those negative feelings, Morin advises. Maybe they're sad about something else, or they'd been embarrassed earlier and wanted to embarrass someone else to distract from their own feelings.
Then, help them figure out how they could have handled the situation differently. "We have to teach them that they have those ways to brainstorm and that there's lots of ways to solve a problem [beyond] the first idea that pops into their head," Morin says.
This is also behavior you might inadvertently be teaching your children. If so, take responsibility and admit to your kids that you were wrong to make fun of people, Morin says: "Kids are going to pick up on those habits, too."
6. They don't easily succumb to peer pressure
Peer pressure is infamous for a reason: It's hard to listen to that inner voice telling you, "This is a bad idea."
Try role playing with your kids to let them gain confidence by practicing what they would do in situations where someone is coaxing them into doing something they don't actually want to do.
Morin offers some examples of what kids could say in those situations:
- "No, thank you."
- "I'm not doing that."
- "I'm not interested."
"The big part of mental strength is knowing, 'I'm in charge of how I think, feel and behave, regardless of what's going on around me,'" Morin says, adding: "A lot of times kids fall prey to peer pressure just because they aren't sure what to say or how to get out of it."
7. They don't feel entitled to everything
Learning to feel and express gratitude for the good things in your life is important for building mental strength, research shows: It can even improve self-esteem and reduce stress.
Kids who feel entitled are less likely to believe they need to work hard to earn what they want, and that "if they want to succeed, it may not come naturally," Morin says.
Parents can counter that sense of entitlement by "not giving their kids everything they want," and by "praising kids for putting in effort" — ranging from chore-based allowances to "token economy systems," Morin says.
"You come up with a couple of behaviors that you want to see every day, and if they do it, they get a token or two. And then they can trade in their tokens, whether it's to go to the movies or to get them a pair of sneakers that they really want," she says.
The system helps remind kids of the differences between what they "need" and what they "want," and which they should learn to work for, Morin adds.
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