“But mom, you don’t understand! Practice ran over and now the internet is down and I can’t get to the language lab site. I’m going to miss the assignment deadline and my teacher is going to fail me and then I’ll get benched. It’s so unfair!”
My youngest tends to catastrophize. If there is a possibility that something won’t work as planned – and isn’t there always a possibility? – he’s ready to throw up his hands and surrender. It can take hours of conversation to help him see that this approach won’t help him manage whatever he finds frustrating. He needs a more flexible mindset in order to become the person he wants to be.
Psychologists Susannah Cole and Julie Dunstan say that children develop a flexible mindset when they learn self-awareness, adaptability, and perseverance. These are big skills and they take time and effort to cultivate. Fortunately, there’s a lot parents and caregivers can do to support children in the process.
One approach is to encourage kids to reflect on what they’re doing and how well it is working for them. Suggest that they name the steps they’ve taken and assess how well each step moved them toward their goal. Perhaps they are working on reducing their carbon footprint. List the things they are doing and rate their effectiveness on a scale of 1 to 5. Then help them explore how to adjust their actions so that more of them fall on the high end of the scale.
It’s useful to model positive thinking as well. Say your child is trying to be more grounded when life gets hectic. Share the words you use to remind yourself that you are capable of calm in the midst of a storm. Hearing you say things like “I’ve got this”, “I feel the ground beneath my feet”, or “Breathe in, breathe out” will help them find their own positive affirmations.
Kids also need to hear you say that it’s okay to make mistakes. Cole and Dunstan suggest that a little education about how our brains work (often through repetition and trial and error) can help even young children become less anxious when things go awry. Invite them to mark their progress in terms of how their mistakes reveal new information that they can use to try another approach. For example, if they struggle with managing social interactions, encourage them to use negative feedback to rescript their next encounter.
Finally, reinforce the value of persistence. Children can feel discouraged when new skills are slow to develop. Mark their progress toward a goal on a bar chart and celebrate pre-determined milestones along the way. Use color-coding as another way to visually see how they’ve moved from red (I’m stuck) to yellow (I’m making progress) to green (I’m running with it). And talk about your own feelings of accomplishment when you finally learned something that took a lot of time. Hearing that persistence really does pay off will help them persevere.