Our children are growing up in the shadow of multiple crises. Between the threat of climate change, terrorism, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers believe we’re living in the most stressful period in recent history. At the same time, kids’ mental resilience has hit an all-time low, with nearly half of children reporting high levels of anxiety, low academic confidence, and a tendency to give up when confronted with challenging tasks.
Though you can’t change the external circumstances your children face, your parenting style has the power to make – or break – their ability to cope. Good parenting habits equip kids with the skills they need to overcome obstacles and build mental strength, increasing the likelihood that they’ll grow up to be successful, emotionally fulfilled adults. In this article, we’ll explore seven common parenting mistakes that erode resilience and provide alternative strategies to increase your child’s optimism and perseverance.
1. Minimizing your child’s emotions.
Learning how to manage emotions (rather than attempting to repress them or escape from them) is crucial to developing psychological resilience. Your child needs to know that it’s healthy to acknowledge, process, and express his (or her) feelings. As such, you should never make light of what your child is experiencing by telling him that an upsetting situation “isn’t a big deal” or that he’ll “get over it.” Though these statements are meant to be reassuring, they ultimately send the message that your child’s feelings are foolish. Over time, this unintentional invalidation will encourage him to suppress his thoughts and emotions.
When your child is worried or sad, take a moment to acknowledge what he’s feeling (e.g., “I know you’re very upset right now.”) Then, ask him if he can think of anything that would make him feel better. Taking this approach will teach your child to recognize his emotions and use his critical thinking skills to find ways to cope.
2. Never allowing your child to fail.
Watching your child struggle is hard, especially when you know you could easily rescue him from the challenges at hand. As painful as failure is, however, it’s an essential step on the path to success. Kids have to learn what doesn’t work before they can isolate effective solutions for their personal and academic problems. While supporting your child is certainly beneficial, if you complete homework on his behalf, for instance, or resolve schoolyard conflicts for him, he won’t know how to do those things when you aren’t around.
Instead of directly intervening in your child’s problems, encourage him to keep trying when he’s frustrated. Remind him that you’re always there to talk to if he needs you, and let him know that it’s okay not to excel at everything right away. You can also try discussing how your child’s role models (whether they’re family members or public figures) overcame adversity to get where they are today.
3. Giving your child everything he wants.
With the amount of stress our kids are under, it can be tempting to overindulge them – but as parents, we must realize this practice is deeply harmful. Though giving your child everything he wants might cheer him up in the short-term, it will gradually undermine his coping skills and concept of purpose. Research shows that spoiled children don’t develop adequate self-discipline, persistence, or accountability. They also fail to recognize the connection between work and reward, which results in a lack of intrinsic motivation.
Rewards should be reserved for special occasions and times when your child has earned them. To foster a strong work ethic, institute a system where your child receives privileges in return for following the rules (e.g., he gets screen time only after completing his homework). Ask your child to complete a list of weekly chores in exchange for a modest allowance, so he can save up for items he wants.
4. Expecting your child to be perfect.
We often think of kids with low resilience as being lazy or unmotivated, but in reality, perfectionism often lies at the root of anxiety and underachievement. When parents expect their children to master new skills immediately, kids learn to see normal setbacks as insurmountable failures. This pessimistic attitude leads to self-esteem and confidence issues that discourage kids from pursuing their goals and trying new things.
To build mental resilience in your child, keep your expectations realistic and focus on the effort your child is making, not just the results he achieves. Praise your child for trying hard (even when he doesn’t succeed) and emphasize the valuable life lessons he’s learning by challenging himself.
5. Sheltering your child from discomfort.
Discomfort is an inevitable part of discovery. Whether your child is making new friends, trying unfamiliar foods, or taking up a new hobby, he will experience moments of awkwardness, nervousness, fatigue, etc. Teach your child to lean into his discomfort rather than running away from it: Empathize with his feelings, then gently encourage him to think of what he might gain if he perseveres. Once your child overcomes the initial difficulty of beginning a new endeavor, he will probably discover that it’s easier – and more fun – than he thought it would be.
6. Failing to set parent-child boundaries.
Kids need clear boundaries to feel safe and secure in their environment. Without firm rules, kids repeatedly test their parents’ limits to figure out which behaviors are acceptable. This testing contributes to household stress and invites negative feedback, which increases kids' feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem. When establishing household rules, discuss them only once with your child. First, explain your choices and let your child ask questions. Then, confirm that he understands why the rules are both fair and necessary. After this discussion takes place, your boundaries must become non-negotiable to prevent parent-child power struggles.
7. Not looking after yourself.
Studies show that parents typically eat less healthily and exercise less than their childless counterparts because they prioritize their child’s needs over their own. While this behavior feels selfless, it does kids a disservice by teaching them to neglect self-care. Parents should make healthy eating and exercise family activities, both to instill good habits in their children and to create opportunities for parent-child bonding.
In addition to emphasizing the value of nutritious food and physical activity, model healthy coping skills for your children. After a busy day, for example, consider saying something like, “Today was very tiring, so I’m going to bed early to relax with a good book.” Sharing your needs (and explaining how you intend to meet them) is an excellent way to show your kids how to recharge and preserve their energy.
Raising resilient children requires a careful balance of empathy, encouragement, and authoritative guidance. During this process, you and your children will have to make sacrifices and difficult choices, but the reward is an enduring sense of purpose, identity, and self-determination. Resilience is also associated with greater longevity, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and a reduced incidence of stress-related health problems, like cardiovascular disease. In short, mental strength is fundamental to living a healthy, happy life.