13 things mentally strong kids do – and how working parents can teach these skills at home

working from home virtual learning

The number one comment I hear from readers of my adult books on mental strength is, “I wish I would have learned these things sooner.” So I decided to write a mental strength book for kids.

And while my adult books focus on what not to do, the kids’ book focuses on what to do. If kids learn these skills now, they won’t grow up to develop the unhealthy habits that rob adults of mental strength.

So here are the 13 things strong kids do and the exercises that can teach them to think big, feel good, and act brave.

1. They stop feeling sorry for themselves

It’s healthy for kids to feel sad. But what’s not healthy is allowing that sadness to turn into self-pity. When kids feel sorry for themselves, they insist their problems are too big to address and they become helpless and hopeless.

Exercise: Work with your child to create a list of activities they enjoy doing when they feel happy, like playing games or singing. Those are their “mood boosters.” When they start to feel sorry for themselves, encourage them to pick an activity from their mood boosters list to help them feel better.

2. They empower themselves

Whether kids are experiencing friendship drama or they’re struggling with homework they don’t understand, it’s essential for them to take responsibility for their choices.

Exercise: When your child blames other people for making them angry or ruining their day, point out how to change their language. Empower them to take responsibility by saying, “I’m angry,” rather than, “You make me mad.”

3. They adapt to change

From moving onto a new grade to trying a different sport, change is tough. Kids need confidence that they can adapt to those changes.

Exercise: Help your child label their feelings. Simply putting a name to an emotion – like sadness or anxiety – can take a lot of the sting out of them.

4. They focus on things they have control over

Kids can easily get caught up in worrying about things they have no control over – like who their teacher will be next year or whether their team will win the championship game. But worrying about things they can’t control drains them of the mental strength they need to be their best.

Exercise: When your child worries about something beyond their control, help them change the channel in their brain. Putting together a puzzle, coloring a picture, or playing a game can distract their brains and help them get refocused on things they can control.

5. They know when to say no

While you might think your kids say no to too often already – like when given opportunities to earn money or spend time with the family – it’s important for them to be able to say no to unhealthy things that come their way.

Exercise: Teach your child how to set boundaries by saying no to things they don’t want in their lives. Whether they decline a favor for a friend or they say no to someone who asks them to cheat, teach them to show self-respect by delivering a direct no.

6. They take calculated risks

While a child might be quick to take a physical risk (like a bike stunt), they might be slow to take a social risk (like making a new friend). It’s important for them to learn to assess risk and face healthy fears.

Exercise: Teach kids that their brain’s anxiety alarm is likely a bit faulty – everyone’s is. So while their brains and their bodies might react to giving a speech as if it’s a life or death situation, assure them that it’s OK to face healthy fears – even when their anxiety alarm bells are ringing.

7. They create their future

Kids won’t ever reach their greatest potential if they’re completely passive about their lives or overly critical of themselves. It’s important for them to get interested – and excited – about the type of future they can create for themselves.

Exercise: When your child says something like, “I’ll never be good at math,” ask them what they’d say to a friend who said that about themselves. They’d likely offer some kind words. Teach them to talk to themselves the same way they’d talk to a good friend.

8. They own their mistakes

It’s tempting for kids to hide their mistakes. After all, they don’t want to get in trouble. But they can’t learn from their mistakes unless they own up to them.

Exercise: When your kids make a mistake, help them set themselves up for success next time. If they forget to bring their homework to school, encourage them to start packing their bag the night before. Or, if they forget to do their chores, create a chart to remind them what to do.

9. They celebrate other people’s success

Feeling jealous and resentful of kids who get better grades or score more points in the games will only hold your child back in life. On the other hand, learning how to celebrate other people’s success will serve them well.

Exercise: Teach your child to “act like the person they want to become.” That doesn’t mean acting fake; instead, it’s about encouraging your child to act the way they want to feel. Acting confident leads to feelings of confidence.

10. They fail and try again

Kids who fear failure avoid new things or give up as soon as they experience a setback. They need to know that although failing feels bad, it can also be an important stepping stone to success.

Exercise: Talk about famous failures. When kids learn that successful scientists, inventors, and artists failed many times before succeeding, they see how to learn from failure.

11. They balance social time with alone time

It’s important for kids to feel comfortable socializing with others as well as to be able to do activities independently. Healthy independence helps kids feel more comfortable in their own skin.

Exercise: Encourage your child to do something fun all by themselves. With practice and support, they can learn that alone time doesn’t have to be boring and lonely.

12. They are thankful for what they have

Entitled kids grow up to be narcissistic adults. Grateful kids, however, grow up to become appreciative, happy adults.

Exercise: When your child receives a gift, talk about what it’s like for them to know that someone spent time picking that give out for them. Your conversation can help your child experience gratitude about the people who care about them – not just the material possessions they receive.

13. They persist

When faced with obstacles, kids are often quick to abandon their goals. Persistence, however, is the key to true success.

Exercise: Have your child write an encouraging, kind letter to themselves. Their letter might remind them why they should keep going when they’re struggling. When they’re tempted to quit, encourage them to read that letter to themselves. Hearing their own words cheer them can give them the strength they need to push through tough times.

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4 practices to help you separate work from home while working remotely, according to a psychotherapist

woman freelance wfh
Having an established work area can help you leave work behind at the end of the day.

Working from home blurs the line between “work time” and “free time.” On the plus side, you can throw some laundry in during the middle of a busy work day. On the flipside, you might struggle to watch TV at night without feeling a twinge of guilt that you don’t at least have your laptop in front of you.

The pandemic has definitely made the division between work and home even more complicated. For many families, home has become the gym, the office, and school. 

And while you don’t need to have a clear delineation between home and work all the time, a little separation between the two can help you feel more present when you’re working and allow you to fully enjoy your leisure time.

1. Establish a work area

Most people don’t have the luxury of having a dedicated home office. If you do, commit to working while you’re in the office and when you’re done, exit the room and leave work behind. 

If you don’t have a separate office, create a work area. This doesn’t have to be the place you physically work from all day (like the dining room table or the couch). Instead, it might be the place where you store your work-related items when you aren’t working.

If you can, put the laptop, piles of papers, and other work-related materials completely out of sight when you’re not working. Tuck them in a drawer or put them in a closet. 

Just tucking those items away can grant you some psychological relief during your off-time by signaling to your brain that you have permission to relax.

2. Change your clothes

While some people say they feel better wearing nice clothes while working from home, dressing up isn’t mandatory.

After all, when you’re at home, you might find wearing nice clothes adds more stress to your day because you have to worry about getting dog hair on your shirt and spilling your soup on your lap.

If you’re into more casual wear in the confines of your home, you can still use your attire to your psychological advantage. Simply change your clothes when you’re done working – even if that means replacing your green joggers with the black ones. 

There’s something about putting on different clothes that can help your brain see that it’s time for something new – even if it’s a lateral switch in outfits (as opposed to the downgrade from the business suit to the sweatpants).

You might even find you dress up more in your off time. If you’ve been trying to pass off your pajamas as business casual on a blurry Zoom call, you might find a trip the grocery store actually warrants a wardrobe upgrade.  Either way, a change of clothes can go a long way to helping you create a distinction between “work time” and “free time.”

3. Create a fake commute

Under normal circumstances, commutes are often the one thing that helps people prepare for the transition between work and home. Whether that commute involves listening to a podcast on a train or it’s a daily call to mom while driving on a country road, physical distance can help us create some psychological distance too.

So you might find it’s helpful to create a fake commute for yourself. Even if it’s just a walk around the block before you start working, a daily activity like this can signal your brain that you’re going from “home” to “work.”

I know one man who walks out his back door as if he’s going to work and then just re-enters through the front. He swears this helps him feel like he’s “going to work” again. So while his “commute” only lasts a minute or two, he finds the strategy helps him feel more effective.

4. Use a different page for work/home apps

If you have a lot of apps for work – like your work email or Slack channel – put them on a different screen on your smartphone. 

Separating your “fun” apps from your “work” apps can help you resist the temptation to check your work email at all hours of the day.

This can also help you enjoy your fun apps a little more. And signal to your brain that you have permission to have fun right now. 

Distinguishing work time from free time can go a long way toward helping you feel your best when you’re working from home. This can be key to preventing burnout and helping you perform at your best.

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5 therapist-recommended tips to stay mentally strong when you’re working from home

Woman doing a craft
Scheduling fun activities can help you stay mentally strong during isolation.

It’s hard to feel like the epitome of mental toughness when you’re sitting on the couch in your pajamas for the 250th day in a row armed with nothing but a laptop and a coffee-stained pile of papers.

amy morin psychotherapist
Amy Morin.

Working from home can feel a bit liberating while also a bit mundane. And over time, every day might blend together when your only coworker is your cat. 

For individuals who live alone, remote work can be quite isolating. No matter how many Zoom meetings you might have, staring at people through a screen might make you feel more disconnected than ever. 

On the other hand, some remote workers would give anything to get a few minutes of silence. Dealing with kids who are trying their hand at remote learning, a partner who speaks loudly on conference calls, and a neighbor’s dog who won’t stop barking can make your work day feel more like a circus than a serene office.

Fortunately, no matter what situation you find yourself in right in, there are a few things you can do to stay mentally strong while you’re working from home.

1. Create opportunities to get away from work

When you’re working from home, you might find that you sit on the couch with the TV on and your laptop in front of you almost all the time. Day blends into night and the line between “work” and “non-work” time gets fuzzy. This can cause you to feel as though you’re working all the time, which isn’t good for your psychological well-being.

Carve time into your schedule that allows you to get away from work. Close your laptop and watch TV or put your work-related items away at a certain time every evening. Create boundaries that allow you to relax without feeling like you have to respond to emails in an instant.

2. Schedule something fun

One of the best ways to feel good is by scheduling something fun. It sounds simplistic on the surface, but it really works.

Pleasant activity scheduling, as it’s often referred to in the therapy world, is a skill that combats depression. Researchers have found it’s a great way to help people feel better.

Scheduling a fun activity a few days into the future boosts your mood because you have something to look forward to. Then, when you actually do that activity, you get another boost in your mood. Your mood will stay elevated after the activity is over because you’ve created a positive memory. 

Of course, during the pandemic a “fun” activity might look a little different than you’re used to. But you might benefit from something as simple as deciding that you’re going to watch a movie on Friday night. Putting that in your schedule might not only increase the likelihood that you’ll actually do it, but it could also improve your psychological well-being.

3. Take care of your body

Your mind won’t stay strong if you’re neglecting your body. So beware of the tendency to stay up watching the late shows or the temptation to snack too much when you’re bored (and working seven steps away from the refrigerator).

Eating too much junk food, indulging in alcohol, skimping on sleep, and forgoing your workouts won’t just take a toll on your physical health – those unhealthy habits will also take a toll on your mental health.

So make sure you’re not neglecting yourself when you’re working from home. It’s easy to do – especially during the pandemic. But creating time to move your body and care for your basic needs is essential to functioning at your best. 

4. Balance social time and alone time

Whether you feel like you can’t get away from your family for five minutes, or the only human being you’ve seen in months is the delivery driver, social distancing has created some bizarre circumstances. 

Everyone needs both social time and solitude but the amount of time in which you need each one is unique to you. It’s important to know how much alone time you need to feel your best and how much time you need with people to thrive.

During the pandemic, you’ll likely need to get a little more creative with getting your needs met. From Zoom dinners with friends to setting aside time to read in a book in your room without the kids interrupting, get proactive about getting your needs met. 

5. Incorporate some mental strength exercises into your day

Just like it’s important to set aside time to work on building a strong, healthy body, it’s also important to work on building a strong mind.

Incorporating a few mental strength exercises into your day can go a long way toward helping you think, feel, and do your best.

There are many different exercises that can help you grow mentally stronger. Practicing gratitude, meditating, and naming your feelings are just a few simple strategies that can help you build mental muscle. 

Set aside time to do them and commit to daily practice. Your mental muscles need ongoing exercise to stay in shape the same way your physical muscles do.

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