The 4-Step Guide to Mental Toughness For Your Child

The 4 Step Guide to Mental Toughness For Your Child

Takeaway: Mental toughness means being able to follow through with a goal even when things get difficult. And it’s a coachable skill. To help your child become mentally tough, teach her to (1) Set goals, (2) Solve problems, (3) Manage emotions, and (4) Celebrate successes.  

Children face a string of challenges as they make their way through school. And this brings a lot of stress with it.

School is an exciting time when we look back on it as adults. But when we were living it, things were often stressful. For example, there was the classroom stress to keep pushing ourselves academically. Just when we became good at something, we’d be challenged with something much harder. Then there was social stress as we had to deal with increasingly complex group dynamics. Making friends was often difficult while keeping those friendships was even more so. And finishing school didn’t make things easier. Now we suddenly had to choose from a confusing range of promising and/or scary life paths.

It’s impossible to get through these challenges without making mistakes and failing. Instead, it’s mental toughness that helps children thrive.

Your child is inevitably going to come up against challenges she can’t solve. And this can be anxiety-provoking and daunting because no one likes to fail. But it’s in sticking with the challenge (and finding a way to overcome it) that she gets stronger. Here’s where the concept of mental toughness comes in. That is, your child’s ability to keep going even when everything seems to be falling apart. Note that mental toughness isn’t about being fearless and unflappable. And it’s certainly not about bottling up and banishing negative emotions. Rather, it’s about accepting emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, hopelessness, and more — and acting in spite of them. It’s about working with these emotions and balancing them with rational thinking so that she can make smart decisions and overcome obstacles. And it’s about developing an inner resilience that helps her adapt to anything that’s thrown her way. (Think of resilience as being like an elastic band that gets stretched but always springs back to normal.)

The great thing about mental toughness is that your child can develop it with practice.

Mentally tough children get better grades, show up to class more often, have stable relationships, and sleep more soundly. Also, they tend to get bullied less, recover from trauma faster, and process change better. Thankfully, though, mental toughness isn’t like a natural talent that your child either has or doesn’t have. It’s something that she can develop with enough practice. (Note: Mental toughness was originally a sports psychology term and is a trainable skill that coaches regularly develop in their athletes.)

So, how do you help your child become mentally tough?

Let’s break up mental toughness into its components and tackle each one in turn.

1. Teach her to set goals and commit to them.

What does your child like to do ? What does she want to achieve? What adds meaning to her life? These might seem like big questions for a young child, but goal setting is a huge part of mental toughness. When things become hard, your child needs to be aware of her ‘why’ — i.e., what makes the discomfort worth it. As she gets older, she might be able to come up with deeper, more meaningful goals. But for now, teach her about goal setting using small, simple tasks. For example, if she’s in preschool, a goal could be as simple as making her bed or putting away her toys. Older children could help you with chores like washing the car, taking the dog for a walk, or setting the table. And teenagers could help mow the lawn, do the laundry, or cook a simple meal. Throw in some rewards for completing these chores and the process becomes a fun game. The point here is that these responsibilities (broken down into smaller goals) train your child to take ownership of everything she does. She’s learning to commit to a challenge, which is the first step of her mental toughness journey.

2. Teach her problem-solving skills.

Once she’s chosen a few goals, start teaching her specific skills she can use to reach them. For example, you could teach her how to examine a problem from multiple angles, brainstorm solutions, test each idea, and repeat the process if needed. Perhaps she’s not able to get the car perfectly clean? That’s the best time to embed this problem-solving theory into a real-life situation. You could encourage her to look up different cleaning techniques and tools, choose a few that seem promising, and test each in turn. This sort of experimentation teaches her that any problem can be solved if you spend enough time studying it and trying out solutions.

3. Teach her how to manage emotions.

This is the most important step. While your child is trying to solve problems, she’ll feel a lot of emotional discomfort. She might feel bored, stressed, anxious, or unmotivated. And she’ll most likely want to quit. But here’s where you step in and teach her how to manage these emotions. We’ve written a post on mindfulness for children, which helps with this, but the basic idea is for her to accept and embrace whatever she feels. So, being afraid or tired or fed up is perfectly fine, but it’s not a reason to quit a task. If she feels overwhelmed, you can help her think through the problem and brainstorm solutions. And if she’s nervous about an upcoming goal, you can help her prepare for it in advance. But it’s crucial that she follow through with the task and faces the consequences. So, if she needs to give a presentation in class but is scared of messing it up, that fear is fine. But you’ll encourage her to give the presentation anyway. And in doing so, she’ll learn that it’s not a big deal to make mistakes, be embarrassed, or fail. Because she’ll always come out stronger and more confident.

4. Help her celebrate successes.

As your child works through discomfort and scary emotions, she’ll slowly develop a string of accomplishments — both small and large. It’s essential that you help her celebrate these successes. For example, you could have an evening catch-up ritual where she tells you what went well in school or which small goals she achieved. This habit will help her focus on how she regularly overcomes all sorts of problems and obstacles. And this, in turn, will remind her how strong and capable she is. It’s common for children to have negative inner monologues playing on a loop — e.g., ‘I always mess things up,’ or ‘I’m not good at Maths.’ But by celebrating successes, they replace this negative thinking with a more empowering sense of self.

Is your child going through a particularly tough time? If so, she might benefit from a bit of extra help.

During difficult times, children often need more than just a bit of coaching. And here’s where a trained child psychologist can help. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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