The pursuit of giving your kids the best chance to succeed covers many facets. This includes helping them become well-adjusted or helping them build their career skills or any number of other avenues. Few are as important, though, as helping your child be as mentally strong as possible; i.e. moving them away in a disciplined fashion from unhelpful emotional states and expanding their capacity for more positivity-centered behaviors.
I just caught up with a book published in January this year titled The Yes Brain by Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and Tina Payne, a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist.
The authors share the key to developing mentally strong children and navigating them away from destructive emotional states to more positive ones, even if it means getting them out of their comfort zone. This net effect is what the authors call a “Yes Brain” and is based on four fundamentals, which I detail below and add perspective too.
This is about keeping your kids in what the authors call the “green zone” (and expanding that zone), where they are balanced, calm, in control, and able to flex their emotions and behaviors to more appropriate ones. The key is not to make light of the emotions they’re feeling or dismiss them. Instead, “connect and redirect” as the authors say by showing them you understand their emotions and recognize that they’re feeling them, and then redirecting them to emotions that are more productive.
My wife and I have learned what can trigger emotional outbursts and are better prepared in those moments. We’ve also learned that the redirecting can’t happen until there’s been a cooling down period for deep breaths and re-centering.
This is about expanding that green zone. The authors say the key here is to better balance knowing when to let the child work through their own issues and when to provide a “cushion” or help with the really big problems. Letting them work through more on their own expands their green zone because they become familiar with being in a tough spot, don’t freak out as much, and learn that the consequences of struggle are never as dire as their emotions are tricking them into believing they are.
This is the ability for the child to better know himself or herself, to better recognize when unhelpful emotions are starting to bubble up, to label those emotions as they occur and to, in the moment, choose better alternatives. I know plenty of adults who suck at this so certainly, it’s no cake walk for kids. Teaching this skill takes heavy doses of patience, but it’s the centerpiece of being mentally strong; i.e. being strong enough to spot and bend emotions and behaviors in the midst of a potential meltdown.
As a parent, you help when you call attention to the child’s own experience. For example, as you’re working to get them back into the green zone, you can ask, “Was there a moment when you knew you were going to explode?”, followed by “When you feel that anger bubbling up, what else can you do to express it?”
Admittedly, this is the hardest of the traits to teach. The key is not to ask these reflective questions until your child has calmed enough to hear and reflect on them.
Mental strength blossoms when your child has the ability to shift attention from himself or herself to others and what those others are thinking and feeling. Mental strength comes from having compassion for others and a desire to help, not just to observe. It’s a pure form of mental strength because, especially in younger children, the draw to focus on oneself is almost instinctive. And the empathy muscles get further strengthened as they learn to show empathy without prompting from mom and dad.
My wife and I having caring, kindness, and empathy as a core shared-value, and we’re convinced it’s why our daughter has high empathy as well. Perhaps more than any other trait discussed in this article, empathy can be learned through observation.
Teaching mental strength takes the strength and tenacity to teach these four traits. Make the investment as a parent and you’ll see success (in many ways).