[View original article published in Psych Central here]
A child and his grandfather are at the playground. There is a high teepee set up with ropes and it looks challenging for the 3-year-old boy. His grandfather invites him to climb it.
As he takes the first step toward the top, he hesitates and feels scared. His grandfather encourages him and tells him, “Sam, I know this is hard, but you can do hard things!”
The young boy answers, “No! My daddy says I can only do easy things!”
His grandfather smiles because he knows his son would never say that. He then encourages the young boy to climb the ropes one step at a time. When he gets to the top, his grandfather says to him, “See, Sam, you can do hard things!”
Sam exclaims, “I can do hard things!” Then he throws his arms up in the air in celebration.
Why is it important that our children learn to do hard things?
When we coddle and overprotect them from challenges, they don’t learn to be strong. They will grow up to be weak and dependent on us. It’s not a pretty picture. We want strong and confident children. Parents often say, “I encourage my children to do hard things, but they give up easily and move on to something else. How can I teach them that principle?”
Your children will respond to the hard things in their lives in one of the following three ways: avoidance, acceptance, or anticipation. I call it the “Mountain of Hard Things.”
As you think of the challenges you have experienced in your life, what was it like? Did you ever pinch yourself, wishing the situation was just a bad dream, but it wasn’t?
To want to avoid hard things is human nature. We do our best to do so and our children do, too. However, think back on major challenges you’ve had and how they shaped your views about life. Hopefully those experiences have helped you become more mature, patient, tolerant, flexible, resilient, enduring, understanding and compassionate.
We want our children to have challenges so they also can gain similar perspectives. However, one of parents’ greatest challenges is to see their children suffer. The tendency is to want to rescue them.
When your children want to avoid challenges, try these ideas:
- Remember always to validate and acknowledge your child’s feelings.
- Show support but do not overprotect.
- Allow your children to try their best. Provide minimal help, and let them take the lead.
- Remember that when the human brain goes into the fight-or-flight response and the limbic system or “reptilian brain” takes over, the “thinking brain” is basically nonexistent at that point. You want to help your children problem-solve and thus prevent meltdowns from happening.
- Do not threaten or bribe your children in order to get them to do something hard. These tactics only work temporarily.
- Remember that when your children believe they need you and you liberate them, their dependence on you becomes stronger each time.
- Take small steps to gradually step away from the rescuing you may tend to do.
- Tell your children that you have confidence in their ability.
You can teach your children to develop inner strength. This can be your goal as you help your children move from avoidance to acceptance.
How can we teach our children that they can accept the hard things with an understanding attitude? The only way is one teaching moment at a time and with our example.
When difficult situations happen in your life, do your children know the coping skills you use? Do they notice a positive or negative attitude? They can learn to accept what is, not in a sense of defeat but in a sense that they can be ready to do their part and their best. Teach them to focus on what they can control in their lives.
They can enjoy and embrace the challenge of hard things. Find ways to celebrate the moments of struggle in your children’s lives. Help them understand that these moments of intense conflict are really the moments when learning happens fastest.
When we understand the benefits that come after our trials, not only can we accept them, but we can also look forward to them.
You can teach your children to have courage when hard things come their way. One way is by telling them stories from your own life. Write down the lessons you’ve learned and simplify them. Be ready to share those stories as needed.
We certainly don’t want our children to be worried about their future. However, when difficulties appear, you nor your children need to be surprised. Challenges are going to happen and you and your children can be ready for them. Hopefully, you’ve taught them how struggles create strength.
When your children feel stressed out, help them understand their body is preparing them to be brave. Teach them that they can be warriors. This is the desired mindset we want our children to have. Not only do they accept challenging situations, but they also have the perspective that hard things only make them better and stronger. They relish the opportunity to test themselves again and again. This is the top of the mountain. The view is breathtaking. If you get your child here, your job as a parent just got a whole lot easier.