“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon” is an old adage that, in some ways, applies to a school year.
Except in addition to a marathon, it’s also like a series of different sprints, hurdles, long jumps, biking, rugby, swimming and a multitude of other events – all happening simultaneously! A school year is about 185 days, and a lot happens during those days. How can parents help their kids get ready for what can be both an exciting and terrifying time of year, the back-to-school season?
We start with the 4Cs that are associated with enhancing mental toughness in both children and adults. Mental toughness is a well-researched topic that is best described as a personality trait that determines how people deal with challenge, stressors, and pressure. It is not about being “hard,” it is about being vulnerable and open to learning; a great mindset for success at school. Mental toughness can be learned. So, try the following conversation starters to enhance your child’s mental toughness as they approach the new school year:
Control. This refers to what extent we feel that we have control over ourselves and the extent to which we have the ability to control our environment. Ideally, we want kids to feel emotionally in control and have a sense that they have control over what happens to them at school.
Often, kids feel that they do not have choices at school – they have to do the work assigned to them. Good teachers provide a variety of activities that students can do and parents are encouraged to follow the lead of good teachers. Ask your child what choices are available to them at school, and what are some things that have less (or no) choice associated with them. In really thinking about it, most kids will come to realize that they have way more choice than they previously thought they did!
Commitment. Use the phrase “goal setting” with your child and watch as their eyes glaze over with boredom. Kids tend not to like to talk about goal setting for many reasons – sometimes it’s fear of setting goals they may not achieve (resulting in feelings of failure), or perhaps they feel that the goals being set are not really their goals.
A good way to have them rethink goal setting is to think about commitments. Ask your child “What are some things you are committed to this year?” It could be a sport, a specific academic skill, improved social interactions, or any number of areas, but it should be positively phrased and conceptualized. “I’m not going to get into as much trouble as I did last year” can make the child feel like they are being held hostage to their past behavior. Negative phrasing can lead to negative results. Better would be, “I’m committed to being in control of my emotional reactions in stressful situations,” which leads to a stronger sense of ownership while also focusing on what the child can do (not what they have done).
Challenge. Challenge refers to both risk-taking and learning. I love the expression “I never lose; I win or I learn” and if this can become your child’s internal motto, then they are far more likely to take on calculated risk – raising a hand to answer a question in class, trying out for the school musical production, even making a new friend are all quite risky behaviors, but ones that we want our kids to take on. Ask your child, “what is a risk you are willing to take this week/month/year?” If they take a risk and it doesn’t work out, then that is where real, meaningful learning happens – so it truly is a win-win situation.
Confidence. Confidence consists of our confidence in our abilities (do we feel confident in what we are doing?) and our interpersonal confidence. We want confident children, and we want that confidence to be earned. Not a false sense of overconfidence or (on the other hand) a lack of confidence that prohibits them from even trying new or hard things. Have your child identify two or three things they are good at (they do not have to be academic at all!) and see if they can describe their feelings of confidence compared to something that they do not feel that they can do well (yet!).
By engaging in these interactions, parents themselves gain insight into their own mental toughness profile. Ask yourself the same questions that have been identified here. In doing so, you may find yourself empathizing with your child in a way that you did not before, which in turn enhances the parent-child relationship, enriching both trust and communication.
And if you get the eye roll, or your child is not interested in having these discussions, try to understand why they might be reluctant. Often, it’s not because you are the “lamest parent in the world.” Instead, it’s a hard conversation for them to have because it may bring up feelings of fear or being judged. Remember that there are no right answers to these questions – be accepting and optimistic and ideally, your children will follow your lead and approach the school year with a hopeful and open attitude.
Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (complexlearners.com), which in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.
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