Mental strength is a vital element of the pursuit of virtue -- but parents must master it themselves before they can teach their kids.
I’ll never forget the first time I realized that listening to my daughter’s problems wasn’t actually doing her any favors.
It was just a few years ago when she was 11, during the beginning of that awkward and tumultuous transition between childhood and adolescence. She had started the school year happy and excited, and I had no reason to doubt that this year would continue as all the rest had — with my social, smart, happy oldest daughter eagerly bounding to school each morning and coming home in the afternoons, brimming over with tales of science experiments and recess shenanigans.
But just before Halloween, that started to change. She began having trouble with her teacher, then with a few girls in her class, and her after-school stories gradually became less like stories and more like extended complaints. Every day, something had gone wrong — at least one thing, but usually many things. For months, I listened and gave advice and made phone calls and wrote emails and tore my hair out trying to help my girl. I hated seeing her dread school in the morning and come home sad, angry, or both.
Over Christmas break, I began to realize something. Two and a half weeks of no school meant that there was nothing for my daughter to dread, no reason to get up grumpy and turn every conversation into a litany of complaints … and yet, that’s exactly what happened. She overreacted to every slight, from her siblings or me. She found fault with everything and everyone. And hearing her constantly proclaim how “unfair” it all was made me see that I had failed her in a fundamental way — by not being what Forbes calls a “mentally strong parent.”
Rejection, failure, and unfairness are part of life. Rather than allow kids to host pity parties or exaggerate their misfortune, mentally strong parents encourage their children to turn their struggles into strength. They help them identify ways in which they can take positive action, despite their circumstances … It can be tempting to cheer your kids up when they’re sad or calm them down when they’re angry. But, regulating your kids’ emotions for them prevents them from gaining social and emotional skills. Mentally strong parents teach their children how to be responsible for their own emotions so they don’t depend on others to do it for them.
Sure, I had made small stabs in the right direction. I’d encouraged her to go to her teacher directly or confront the bully, but then I’d let her take control of the conversation again to explain why she couldn’t, how it was impossible, and how the universe was stacked against her. And then — inexcusably — I’d believed her, and tried to fix the universe instead of helping my child become strong enough to live within it.
And the reason I’d responded that way is because I genuinely was not a mentally strong parent. It hurt to see my happy girl become sad, so I tried to fix it. I tried to make her happy again by fixing everything that might be a potential source of pain, discomfort, or anxiety — and in the process, I undermined her emotional and mental development.
By allowing her to paint herself as an endless victim, I had inadvertently encouraged her to become a real victim of her own emotions. She couldn’t regulate them because she didn’t know how, and she didn’t know how because I tried to fix it for her instead of teaching her to fix it for herself.
I’m so grateful that I understood this early enough to find a new way forward. In the last two years, she’s faced struggles that make those early ones seem trivial in comparison, and she’s developed a remarkable degree of mental and emotional resilience. In fact, she’s beginning to find ways to turn her struggles and pain into a source of compassion for others. She’s serving on the leadership team for her youth group, and she often brings home stories of girls who are facing something she can relate to. Now, our conversations revolve around brainstorming the best way to use what she’s learned to help her friends.
This transformation has been eye-opening for me, because it’s shown me how directly the pursuit of virtue depends on mental strength and emotional resilience. They aren’t concepts we can toss out as pop psychology — they’re vital elements in the Christian life, and our kids absolutely need us to be mentally and emotionally strong enough to show them how to become the same.