Amy Morin knows a lot about resiliency. A licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and foster parent, she has devoted her life to helping others resolve problems and conflicts.
But she also has personal experience with building resiliency. While in her 20s Morin faced the unexpected loss of her mother and, three years later, the sudden death of her 26-year-old husband. A few years later, after remarrying, her father-in-law, to whom she had grown close, was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Those experiences led her to write a blog post in 2013 titled “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.” It got so many online views she turned the concept into a book, which became an international bestseller. Now she’s providing a similar framework specifically targeting parents with her new book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do: Raising Self-Assured Children and Training Their Brains for a Life of Happiness, Meaning and Success.
We spoke with Morin, who is also a lecturer at Northeastern University, to learn how we can ditch bad parenting habits and replace them with beneficial ones that will help our kids grow up to be strong and independent adults. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: After my first book, the biggest question I kept getting was how do we raise mentally strong kids. I wanted to create a source for parents so they could become mental-strength coaches and take those same skills that work for adults and apply them for kids.
Q: What do you mean by the term “mental strength?”
A: There are three parts. One is regulating your thoughts so you think realistically. Not overly negative but not overly positive. If I’m too confident I might not study; if I’m overly negative, I might think I’ll never pass, so why try. The second part is being aware of our emotions and how they affect how we perceive things, and knowing I can get a handle on things. The third is taking positive action. That might mean “If something is frightening to do, I’m going to do it anyway or ask for help.”
Q: Of the 13 habits you encourage parents to break, which is the most common?
A: Shielding children from pain. One of our tendencies is to step in front of kids and say, “I don’t want you to be sad or to deal with heartache or know how scary the world is.” We protect them, and they don’t develop the skills they need. Then they don’t have the resilience to do it for themselves. By allowing kids firsthand experiences to deal with pain or emotions, they get to practice. Just like if we want them to be great soccer players - you wouldn’t go out on the field with them, they need to go out there and practice.
Q: How can we reconcile our desire to protect our children with the need to let them experience uncomfortable situations?
A: Know they will fail sometimes and our job isn’t to be a protector but to be more of a guide, and we can coach them. That means taking a step back and letting your kids do more for themselves.
Q: What else do parents often do that can be detrimental?
A: Parents make their child the center of the universe. They have the notion that the more attention they give, the more doting they do, the better parent they become. They believe the more they give the child, then the better off the child will be. That is creating a child who thinks the world revolves around him. It’s a tough wake-up call when they move out of the house and find out the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Q: How can we counteract that?
A: Say “I’m going to give my kid the kid treatment rather than the royal treatment.” You don’t have to act as if you are their concierge and wait on them hand and foot and entertain them. And you can teach them gratitude and empathy and give them a better idea that there are a lot of opportunities in the world to help other people. A lot of parents think the more they give, the more [kids] will give back to the world. We know that’s not true. Rather than giving them everything, we need to teach them how to give to others. As a family, volunteer; do community projects; get involved.
Q: You mention the importance of not losing sight of values.
A: There’s a study where they asked parents what do you value most - whether your child is a kind kid or whether they achieve. Almost all the parents said they would rather raise a kind child. Then they asked the teens what do your parents value most and 80 percent of the teens said they want me to achieve. They thought their parents valued achievement and happiness above all else.
Q: What can we do about this discrepancy?
A: Know what your values are. Live those values. … If we are not walking the talk, they will not inherit the moral characteristics we think are important.
Q: In your book you talk about core beliefs. What are those, and what part do they play in our kids’ lives?
A: Kids are developing those beliefs. It could be something simple you say that leads a child to believe a certain thing. If your child is scared of elevators, you say “Okay, we’ll take the stairs.” It teaches your child “I must be too fragile to take the elevator.” They grow up thinking, “I am not a capable person. If I’m afraid of something, I shouldn’t do it. My parents don’t believe in me, why should I believe in myself?” Or saying “people like me never get ahead.” They develop the belief that people will hold you back from reaching your goals, so why try. As we are growing up, we develop these ideas and we hold onto them. When we are 30, we hold onto what we learned when we were 7. You can unlearn those things, but it takes time and hard work.
Q: How can we avoid teaching negative viewpoints?
A: To just be aware that “Okay, I’m teaching my child life lessons every day - the choices I make, the way we interact with other people.” Your kids are watching you. Be aware and then be proactive so that your child is developing healthy beliefs.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: That they can help kids build the mental strength they need so when the kid does leave the nest they will know how to take on the challenges of the world and be more confident that they are capable and resilient and will be able to do their best.
Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her at miageiger.com and on Twitter @MiaGeiger.