All parents want the best for their children. As adults, we know that life will throw many curve balls at our kids. We want them to be resilient, but we also want more for them than just dealing with setbacks. We want them to live life to their full potential.
To ensure that children thrive, we need to help them become curious, proactive, positive and confident in their abilities and interactions. We need them to be mentally tough.
Niels Van Hove, Mental Toughness Coach, author and dad to Poppy (nine) and Coco (seven) explains what mental toughness is all about and how he helps his daughters develop their mental strength.
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness is not about acting tough, being unkind or suppressing emotions. Mental toughness is about having the inner resilience, curiosity, confidence and drive to reach your full potential. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin and having the courage and positive mindset to grow and thrive.
Mental toughness originates from elite sports psychology, where it has been used with success for over 30 years and is increasingly being recognised to apply to everyday life – both for adults and children. The earlier we start exposing children to the concepts and techniques around mental toughness the better we can prepare for the future.
Why is mental toughness important?
Mentally tough children deal better with pressure, stress and challenges and keep a positive mindset. Research in primary and secondary education shows that mentally tough children perform up to 25% better in exams. They sleep better, show better attendance, are more engaged in the classroom and have higher aspirations. They transition better from junior to secondary education, perceive less bullying and are less likely to adopt anti-social behaviour.
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How I help my children become mentally strong?
Like all children, my girls have different mental toughness profiles, which require different areas of focus. All mental toughness improvement techniques have one thing in common; they require practice and continuous effort. The mind works like a muscle and only with continuous practice we can make it stronger.
Committing to tasks and rules.
Whenever I ask my youngest daughter, Coco to brush her teeth, she will find 25 other things to do on her way to the bathroom. She often struggles with committing to goals and focusing on tasks. On the other hand, Poppy, my eldest gets ready without much fuss and has always done that.
To help Coco focus on goals and tasks, I encourage her to draw a starboard listing all the tasks that she needs to complete to get ready for school, like brushing her teeth, combing her hair, packing her lunchbox and drink bottle etc. Breaking down a big task - like getting ready for school - in smaller achievable tasks, provides structure and is less overwhelming. This strategy is really helping Coco get ready for school more easily. It also gives her a sense of achievement each morning and teaches her the important skill of breaking down bigger tasks and goals.
Challenging them out of their comfort zone.
When Coco is asked to do something new, she usually jumps up and simply gives it a go. Singing a song, performing a dance or doing a cartwheel. It doesn’t matter what, she is comfortable with trying new things even if she initially can’t do them properly as she sees it as a learning experience. Poppy however, prefers to master something privately, before she gives it a go in public.
I regularly tell my girls that it is OK to fail. I failed many times, I still do and still have many things to learn. We talk discuss how it is normal to feel a bit scared when taking on a daunting task, like standing in front of the class for Show and Tell. Or doing a cartwheel in front of your friends when you’ve not quite mastered it yet. I tell them I still feel nervous when I speak in front of a large audience. And I keep reminding them that everything takes practice. I encourage them to learn new things and I help them practice for it. And when I hear ‘I can’t do this’, I answer with: ‘Yet!’ ‘You can’t do it YET!’
This is not a magic formula by which my oldest now steps miraculously out of her comfort zone like my youngest. However, Poppy is starting to understand that nervousness and fear of failure are acceptable emotions, that skill requires practice and that it is her own choice to become good at something new.
Confidence in interaction and abilities.
Having confidence is a lot about having a positive mindset about yourself and the outside world. Both Poppy and Coco are confident in their abilities and interaction with others. However, there are many ways we reinforce this at home.
We celebrate their strengths and remind them that their great results are due to hard work.
When my girls use self-defying or negative self-talk, I try to help them reframe their thinking. I ask, "what would be the best possible outcome?" and "how could you get to that outcome?"
Although we don’t avoid negative emotions, I focus on the positives by asking "what went well today?" after school. We often practice gratitude. At bedtime we often talk about "what were the best things of the day?" This puts a child, and the whole family for that matter, in a positive frame of mind, ready for the next day.
One of the hardest things for a child is controlling their emotions. That part of their brain is simply not developed yet. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until the age of 25 and this part of the brain regulates focusing attention, organising thoughts and problem solving and the modulation of intense emotions.
A little setback can result in a big, disproportional emotion response. Coco will often cry and get very upset when she feels that somebody is mean to her, or sometimes simply when she can’t find her pyjamas. Poppy on the other hand will just walk off when someone is mean to her. I remind them when an issue is out of their control, like the weather, it is better to let go of it. When an issue is in their control, like finding their pyjamas or agreeing what TV show to watch, I encourage them to try solve it.
Finally, it is important to learn how to lose. Losing can be terrible, but they have to learn to deal with those emotions and control them. My girls often have a competition to see who can do the best handstand or the best dance routine. They always ask me to select a winner. I use to respond with saying it was a draw. But now I congratulate them both with their efforts and let the best one win. The disappointment in their face can be heartbreaking, but as parents we have to sometimes be a bit tough on ourselves in order to build mental toughness in our children.
Niels is a Melbourne-based author who recently released first children book, My Strong Mind. Aimed at five to eight year olds, it teaches children resilience, confidence and a growth mindset in a fun, practical and accessible way.
My Strong mind is available on Amazon (www.amazon.com.au), Booktopia (www.booktopia.com.au), Angus and Robertson (www.angusrobertson.com.au). For more information about Niels and the book visit www.mentaltoughness.online.