We focus a lot on kids’ physical development, but what about the emotional aspect? Here’s how to raise mentally strong kids, especially in such tough times.
As parents, we spend a greater part of our day thinking about our kids. We worry if they’re getting all their nutrients in their food. We do our best to make sure our home and surroundings are safe. We try to include as much activity in their day through YouTube videos or yoga classes.
All this is great, and it is necessary – for physical development. But what about mental and emotional development? Are we equipping our kids with the tools needed to deal with the big bag world outside?
There are many studies which show that kids today are emotionally more vulnerable than earlier. There is an increasing number of cases of depression, anxiety and even suicides among younger people. Psychology Today states that we’re raising a generation of wimpy kids. On the whole, we’ll have to admit the fact that children today don’t have the mental strength to deal with the various challenges of adult life.
What is Mental Strength?
Mental strength is a word that is often misunderstood. Contrary to what many people think, it is not about appearing ‘tough’ or keeping our emotions bottled up. Mental strength is about having a strong set of values, and being secure and confident in our abilities to be able to face any challenge heads on. It is about being able to regulate our emotions, cope with problems and find our way around obstacles.
Mental strength is essential for all human beings, but it needs building in childhood. A study in the American Journal of Public Health reports that emotional skills are bigger indicators of future success than just intelligence. Children who are emotionally and socially more competent from a young age are more likely to have a college education and to get employed easily. On the other side, they’re also less likely to drop out or have issues like substance abuse. Basically, EQ trumps IQ.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has made things worse for our children, who’re facing a situation none of us has ever had to face in our lifetimes. A complete lack of social activity and communication with peers is affecting our kids, and they’re more prone to mental and emotional issues than ever before.
We want our kids to grow up to be strong and resilient, while also having compassion and empathy for others. While this is challenging especially during a time like this, we can still work around it. Here are some ways to help you raise mentally strong kids, who are well equipped to deal with everything that comes their way, now and later.
How to Raise Mentally Strong Kids
1. Instill the Right Values
Can you imagine a world without rules or laws? The result would be complete chaos and anarchy. Humans need boundaries, and having a core set of values or beliefs help children have a strong moral compass. These values may be based on your personal religious beliefs or not, but having something to guide them helps children make good decisions.
Help your children understand that some values are non-negotiable. For instance, there is no compromise when it comes to honesty, kindness and hard work. Have a no-tolerance policy for violence of any kind, cheating or lying. Building empathy from a young age will help kids grow into kind, helpful and compassionate adults.
Experts say that children as young as 6 can distinguish between right and wrong. Use stories, books and pretend play to instill these lessons in your child. Whenever your child faces a decision or has to make a choice, encourage them to think for themselves and use their values as a guide. These values will act as their foundation in the future, something they can hold on to no matter how hard they’re hit.
2. Validate their Feelings
Talking about our feeling is often considered a sign of weakness, especially in boys. This needs to change completely, and we need to encourage kids of all genders to give due consideration to their feelings. And this starts with the way we react. Avoid saying things like, ‘Leave it’, ‘Let it go’, ‘It’s no big deal’ or ‘You’re worrying too much’. This gives the child the message that her feelings aren’t important.
Right from a young age, help kids identify what they’re feeling – beyond just happy and sad. Let them know that there are many human emotions and it is okay to feel them. Fear, anger, pride, jealousy, love, hate are all normal human emotions – it is how we deal with them that matters. For instance, it’s okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hit someone.
When your child tells you about how they’re feeling, listen to them without interruption. Say that you understand how they feel and that it’s okay to feel that way. Then help them deal with that emotion in a productive way. Over time, this will teach kids to regulate their own feelings and deal with it appropriately.
3. Practice Reframing Negative Thoughts
As children grow, they face many obstacles and some of them may seem unsurmountable at the time. Children also have a tendency to be dramatic and think in a catastrophic manner. Failing a math test may lead to a ‘I’m never going to be good at math’. Spilling some milk may cause them to say, ‘I’m always so clumsy’.
Children often tend to think in the short term, which is why they make statements like this. However, it is our job to help them think more realistically by looking at the big picture. ‘You’ve failed this math test; what makes you think that you’ll fail the next one?’ Focus on looking for proof that the negative thought is true. This alone will make kids realize that those thoughts don’t have any sound backing and they’ll be able to be more realistic about it. Acknowledge the negative thoughts, identify them for what they are and what you can do about it practically.
Please remember that reframing negative thoughts is not the same as toxic positivity. Toxic positivity tells you to be cheerful and happy no matter what the situation is or how you’re feeling naturally. This is completely counterintuitive and can be damaging to a child’s mental health.
4. Normalize Making Mistakes
One of the biggest problems with kids today is that they don’t have the freedom to make mistakes. As parents, we often have high expectations from our kids, and we expect constant success from them. We forget that making mistakes is the best way to learn something, and it is also crucial for building mental strength.
Some children are also naturally hard on themselves and expect perfection in all that they do. Help kids understand that it’s completely fine to make a mistake. If your child spills something when pouring out a drink, don’t make a fuss about it. Help your child clean up and show her how to do it right.
Unless children have the freedom to make mistakes, they won’t feel confident enough to try new things due to the fear of failure. They won’t be able to grow and live to their full potential. They’ll also have lasting self esteem issues. Don’t hide your mistakes from your child either – let them see you fall and get back up, and they’ll see that it’s all part of the human experience.
5. Emphasize Problem Solving
When you help your child reframe negative thoughts, it naturally leads to the next step – problem solving. Kids are natural problem solvers – have you ever observed a toddler try to reach a shelf and then put together whatever he can so he can climb up? As frightening as it is to watch, that is an example of a child finding a solution for his problem.
While we should certainly discourage dangerous behavior, we need to help our kids maintain an attitude of finding solutions instead of focusing on problems. Many children these days encounter a problem and just waste time wallowing and complaining instead of finding a practical solution.
From a young age, encourage toys and activities that promote problem solving, like building blocks or puzzles. When you find them whining about something, ask them to state the problem in one sentence. Then instead of complaining about someone or something that caused the problem, ask them for three solutions to it. This will change their mindset and help them think in a more constructive manner.
6. Identify Coping Skills
So we’ve helped kids accept their emotions and identify negative feelings. But what are they supposed to do after that? As humans, we need a vent for our emotions, and if children don’t have a healthy outlet it can build up inside them and lead to undesirable outcomes.
It helps to introduce coping strategies for your child from a young age. Coloring or drawing is a great way for young children to express their emotions and let go of some stress. Some children find more comfort in activity, like jumping or dancing. Some others may prefer to listen to music or watch a TV show. Some others may find that simply praying helps relieve their anxiety.
Different emotions may require different coping skills, so don’t be afraid to try various methods. For instance, if your child is angry, some intense activity may help. If she’s older and is feeling stressed about a situation, journaling may help. If your child feels scared, praying or doing some yoga may help her feel comforted and secure.
7. Don’t Rush to Rescue
One thing many of us remember about our childhoods is how much we were left to find our own means of entertainment when bored. Most parents had multiple kids and were quite busy, and we had no option but to find our own ways to have fun! However, todays parents have fewer kids, and we tend to coddle them much more than parents of previous generations. This does them more harm than good, especially in the long run.
It could be because we’ve struggled during our own childhood years and want to spare our kids the trouble. Maybe it’s because we simply think it’s easier to do things for them. But every time we rush in to rescue our child, we are depriving them of a valuable lesson in consequences.
Children need to know that every action has its consequences. If they forget to complete an assignment on time, they’ll have to face the loss of marks due to late submission. If they forget to pack their geometry box, they’ll have to deal with the inconvenience of not having the supplies during math class. Whatever it is, do not rush in to help them or remind them – parents should not turn into kids’ personal assistants.
8. Don’t Spoil them
There is no doubt that today’s kids are far more entitled and spoilt than kids of previous generations. Thanks to the consumerist culture and the increased availability of all kinds of toys and gadgets, our kids have far more things than they need or even want.
We may be getting our children everything they ask for because we wonder, ‘who else am I going to buy this for?’. Or maybe we missed out on these things ourselves. Perhaps we’re buying it out of parental guilt. Whatever your reason may be, treating your child like he’s the center of the universe will turn him into a brat who can’t fend for himself or understand what it means to live with less.
Limit the number of things you buy your kid – focus on experiences instead, like reading together, taking a walk, baking a cake. Overly materialistic children are more likely to grow up to be unhappy adults. When deciding what movie to watch, don’t let the child decide every time – let him wait his turn. Children need to learn that everyone has an equal right to all rights and facilities, and they should respect that.
9. Practice Gratitude
One of the best ways to raise mentally strong kids is to practice gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful thing, and it has many benefits even for young children. A daily gratitude practice helps kids realize that they have a lot to be thankful for, which increases feelings of contentment and satisfaction. Such kids are generally more optimistic and have a positive outlook towards life, which helps them see the silver lining in any situation.
Practicing gratitude also has physical benefits like better sleep, healthier eating habits and less anxiety. There are many ways to do this with children, like during a bedtime prayer. If they like, they an have a small gratitude diary where they write in 5 things they’re grateful for that day. Some kids may prefer drawing in their journal, so let them.
This is particularly important during times like these, when everything seems very bleak and there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. Reminding ourselves of the blessings we have at such times will help kids cope with difficult situations in the future.
10. Be a Good Role Model
We can preach all we want but if we don’t practice these things in our own lives, it’s all for naught. To truly raise mentally strong kids, they need to see that strength in you. And don’t underestimate them; children are very sensitive to how their parents are feeling, especially in times of stress and uncertainty.
Model the behavior you want to see in your child. Acknowledge your feelings and talk about coping strategies in front of them. Use any opportunity you can to teach your child about problem solving, like if the power goes off in the middle of an online class.
In the course of this process, it’s natural to find that you may be lacking in many of these yourself. Maybe you have trouble dealing with anger, or tend to complain rather than look for solutions. If so, use this as a chance to work on yourself too – it’s an excellent way for kids to see how it’s never too late to improve yourself.
And last but not least, let kids know that if there is a problem that seems too big or if they feel like they can’t handle it alone, they should definitely ask for help. Tell them that just like our body parts, our mind may also feel ill at times and may need someone else to help us fix it. Let’s normalize talking about mental health, and let’s raise a mentally strong generation together.