Child psychologist: The No. 1 skill that sets mentally strong kids apart from 'those who give up'—and how parents can teach it
A raging pandemic, gun violence, climate change — as an educational psychologist, I've seen firsthand how the troubling events of today are taking a toll on our children.
"It's hard to stop thinking about bad stuff," an 11-year-old told me recently. "Sometimes I worry about waking up."
Without the right tools to handle adversity, hopelessness can set in and kids' overall well-being can decline. Hope is what energizes them to stay mentally strong during tough times, and it's what sets them apart from those who give up easily.
Mentally strong kids understand the value of hope
Research shows that hopefulness can dramatically reduce childhood anxiety and depression. Hopeful kids have an inner sense of control. They view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, so they are more likely to thrive and help others.
Yet despite its immense power, hope is largely excluded from our parenting agendas. The good news? Hope is teachable. One of the best ways to increase this strength is by equipping children with skills to handle life's inevitable bumps.
Here are nine science-backed ways to help kids maintain hope — especially during tough times:
1. Stop negativity in the moment.
Ungrounded pessimism eats away at hope, which is why it's important to help kids catch negativity before it becomes a habit. Develop a private code to signal "that's a negative comment," like pulling on your ear. Then encourage them to interrupt negative thoughts.
Creating a nickname for their pessimistic voice ("Mr. Negative Nelly") can help kids control it. When your kid utters even an ounce of optimism ("I'm getting better at this."), salute it ("Yes, I can tell you've been practicing!").
2. Use hopeful mantras.
Words have great power. Help your child develop an upbeat mantra ("I got this!," "There's always tomorrow," or "I'll be okay") to use during tough times. Then teach them to use the phrase to reduce pessimism.
You can also have your kid set their positive mantra as a phone screensaver by using quote creation platforms like Canva. Don't forget to adopt one for yourself. Say it until your voice becomes your child's inner voice.
I always said, "I have what it takes!" to my kids, and now they still say it as adults.
3. Teach brainstorming.
Hopeful kids don't avoid problems. They take it head on because they've learned problems can be solved.
Explain to your child: "The trick to getting unstuck is to 'spark your brain' for solutions." Then teach brainstorming. One trick is to use the S.T.A.N.D. acronym to help kids recall the steps:
- Slow down so you can think.
- Tell your problem.
- Ask: "What else can I do?"
- Name everything you could do to solve it without judgements.
- Decide the best choice and do it.
4. Share hopeful news.
Hopeful kids hear hopeful stories. Violent media can create a view of the world as completely mean, scary dangerous. Uplifting news keeps children's hope alive.
Look for inspiring news stories to share with your kids from time to time. Institute a bedtime review of the good parts about each person's day to help your kids find the bright side of life.
And remind them of their own triumphs over struggles: "Remember when you had trouble making friends? Now you have great buddies!"
5. Ask 'what if?'
Pessimistic kids often think of "gloomy probabilities," which dims hope. But hopeful kids learn to assess accurately. When your child shares a doubt, pose "what-if" type of questions to think through possible outcomes more realistically.
You might ask: "What might happen if you tried — or didn't try — that? What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that to happen? What's the most likely outcome?"
These questions help kids weigh if potential outcomes really are as bad as they imagined. That knowledge can be the path forward.
6. Celebrate small gains.
Repeated failure increases hopelessness, but recognizing even a small success boosts hope. Redefine "success" as a gain: a small improvement over past performance due to effort. Then help your child identify personal gains.
For example, "Last time, you got nine words correct. Today you got 10! That's a gain!" Or, "Yesterday you hit one run; today you got two. That's a gain!"
7. Boost assertiveness.
Kids who feel hopeless find it difficult to self-advocate. Learning assertiveness, which is the mid-point between passivity and aggression, increases hopefulness and agency.
Body language matters, too. Teach the basics of confident body language: "Holding your head high helps you appear confident. Always look the person in the eye."
Brainstorm comebacks your child can use to stand up for herself: "Not cool." "That's not right." "I don't want to do that." Practice these skills until your child can defend themselves.
8. Create gratitude rituals.
Hopeful kids are grateful. One study found that people who keep gratitude journals feel more hopeful about their lives in just 10 weeks.
Hold a meal-time tradition in which each family member reveals one thing they grateful for that happened that day. Institute a bedtime ritual where everyone names someone they're grateful for and why. Or log your children's appreciations in a family journal to recall the good parts of their lives.
9. Embrace service.
As misfortunes increase, hopelessness can set in. Showing children that they have power to make differences in other's lives inspires hope and builds self-efficacy.
Hopeful kids have caring adults who model hopefulness. Start a family charity box where kids add gently-used toys, clothes and games. Deliver it to a needy family so they see the impact of kindness.
Find causes tailored to your children's passion and support their efforts. Projects should be driven by their own concerns, not designed to look good on resumes. Follow their lead!
Michele Borba, EdD, is an educational psychologist, parenting expert, and author of "Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine" and "UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World." She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and is the mother of three sons. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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