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When I was a teacher, I regularly received emails from parents. Emails contesting a child’s grade, asking for extra time on an assignment, requesting copies of forms the child had lost, and the list goes on.
This isn’t so out of the ordinary, but here’s the thing: I taught high school seniors. Young adults on the cusp of venturing out into the world--without the ability to advocate for themselves, manage their responsibilities or solve their own problems. It was a scary thought.
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As parents, our instinct is to rush to the rescue when our children struggle. We want to say, 'Don’t worry! I’ll fix it'! In the long-term, however, this 'helpful' behaviour only hurts our children. If we instead let our children struggle and empower them to persevere, we can raise resilient children ready to take on the world.
Why Parents Should Let Children Struggle
Imagine you’re lifting weights at the gym. At the first sign of struggle or strain, a well-meaning bystander lifts the weight for you — every time.
Are you going to get any stronger? Will you ever discover just how strong you can be? No matter how pure our intentions, the same concept applies when we refuse to let our children struggle.
If we always solve problems for our children, they will never learn to solve problems themselves. We imply that they cannot overcome obstacles or succeed on their own, which conditions them to give up at the first sign of difficulty.
Angela Duckworth, the author of 'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,' explains, 'The important thing is that when you see your child struggle, let them struggle a little longer than maybe is comfortable for some of us'.
Those few moments of discomfort teach your child to persevere instead of giving up or waiting for others to come to the rescue. They learn that they are capable, which allows them to develop grit, resilience, and growth mindset.
Strategies to Empower Your Children When They Struggle
As Duckworth suggests, watching your child struggle and become frustrated isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable for parents, sometimes even agonizing. So, what can you do to empower your child to keep trying—without doing all the work yourself?
1. Listen and Empathize
Sometimes children are not expecting us to help and all they need is a listening ear — practice listening when your child vents to you about a problem. If needed, take deep breaths as you fight the urge to jump in with solutions.
Next time your child comes to you with a problem, try one of the following responses.
- Provide choices, such as, “Would you like to keep trying, take a break, or ask for help?”
- Validate your child’s feelings: “You seem frustrated. I understand why you feel that way.”
- Ask your child open-ended questions such as, “How do you think you can solve this?” or, “What solutions have you tried? What else could you try?” Brainstorm together, but let your child take the lead. Don’t push an agenda.
- If your child is truly stuck, you can try prompting with questions like, “What do you think would happen if you tried ________?”
- You can also ask, “What do you need from me?” This tells your child that you are there for them in a supporting role, but still gives them ownership and agency.
2. Model the Attitude You Want to See
When you encounter challenges yourself, model the same language and attitude you’d like to see from your child.
- Use phrases like, 'This is hard. I need a break,' or, 'This is hard. I’m going to keep trying'. You may also say, 'This is hard. Will you help me'?
- Ask your child to help you brainstorm solutions to your problem or challenge.
- Avoid expressing negative opinions of yourself or making comments like, “I can’t do this.” Take deep breaths and tell yourself, “I can handle this,” if you’re losing your composure.
- Focus on the positive. Was a lesson learned? Did you improve? Did you overcome the struggle--and how great did it feel?
These strategies teach children to accept that sometimes things are hard, and sometimes we get frustrated, and that’s okay.
It’s not about being perfect or figuring something out the first time. In fact, it’s even more of an accomplishment to stick with it, try different strategies, and eventually make progress.
The Resilience Kit is a collection of printable worksheets, posters, activities, and colouring pages designed to help children develop grit, resilience, and perseverance. These activities are to use as a family or in a classroom.
3. Build Up Confidence with Age-Appropriate Tasks
As early as possible, boost your child’s feelings of confidence and capability by allowing him to do age-appropriate tasks on his own.
This may include getting dressed, picking up toys, preparing foods like cereal or toast, making the bed, or other chores, depending on your child’s age.
Yes, it’s often faster for us to do these tasks ourselves. But being patient and letting your child master these skills independently shows them that they can do hard things.
The Confidence & Self-Esteem Kit contains activities to help children learn how to overcome their negative self-talk and start believing in themselves and their abilities. The kit has goal-setting templates, problem-solving activities, and more.
4. Remind Them of Past Struggles and Accomplishments
Remember: The more children struggle their way to progress or success, the more willing they will be to stick with challenges in the future. It’s helpful to remind them of previous obstacles they’ve overcome and problems they’ve solved.
Remind your child of tasks that were once difficult and became easier with time. When has your child struggled, but eventually triumphed or improved?
What are your child’s strengths? How did he grow these strengths?
You can also talk to your child about times you have struggled and been rewarded in the end. Remind your child that everyone struggles. It is natural, normal, and even good! With struggle comes growth.
There are many examples of famous people who have persevered through challenges, only to achieve incredible success. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity the first time he tried out. What if he had just given up? His story and many others, plus reflections and activities, are included in our Famous Failures Kit.
When your child does succeed, reinforce the experience with statements like, “You did it! You kept trying and you ___________!” Talk about the pride, joy, or relief they feel, and mention the conversation the next time your child faces a tough task.
5. Teach Problem-Solving Skills
In addition to brainstorming and asking your child open-ended questions, you can directly teach problem-solving skills. Teach a simple process like the following:
- Step 1: What am I feeling? Help your child label how he feels about the situation. Understanding feelings diffuses their charge, allowing your child to step back and focus on the bigger picture.
- Step 2: What’s the problem? Ask your child to describe the problem. In most cases, ensure that your child is taking responsibility for his role, rather than pointing fingers.
- Step 3: What are the solutions? Brainstorm potential solutions. They don’t have to be 'good' ideas; you will narrow it down later.
- Step 4: What would happen if…? Discuss what might happen if your child tried each solution. Roleplaying is also appropriate at this step. Is the solution safe? Is it fair? How will others feel?
- Step 5: What will I try? Have your child choose one solution to try. If it doesn’t work, discuss WHY and choose another. Encourage your child to keep trying until the problem is solved.
Use this process consistently, and remember to model it too. You may even want to create a sign or poster to remind your child of the steps.
If your child is too young for this strategy, check out our article How to Teach Problem-Solving Skills to Kids. The guide lists age-by-age activities and strategies for instilling the ability to solve problems.
6. Know When to Lend a Hand
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never help your child. Step in when:
- There is a safety concern.
- Your child is frustrated with a task that is not developmentally appropriate.
- A skill(s) needs to be learned before your child can succeed at the task.
- Your child has tried multiple strategies and persevered, but is still struggling. In this case, offer guidance and help. Then, discuss what your child learned and praise the effort/progress.
Success and achievement aren’t necessarily about talent. It’s all about the willingness to struggle and keep going. The good news is that you can teach this essential ability!
Unfortunately, there’s only one way to teach this valuable lesson to our children: Let them struggle. It isn’t easy, but with the six strategies we’ve shared here, you can equip your child with many useful skills and tools along the way.
Make the shift from 'I’ve got this'! to 'You’ve got this'! and your resilient, problem-solving, and gritty child will thank you.