Ep 25: Mental Strength for Teens

Episode Summary

Amy Morin, bestselling author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, an expert on how to teach grit and emotional strength, discusses lessons she learned from her years as a foster parent to dozens of children and as a psychologist who helps families through difficult transitions.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

At some point your child may have to deal with the sudden loss of a job, or a friend, or even you or your spouse. If your kid isn’t prepared to deal with fear and other hard emotions in life, these big events can be devastating. Being unable to deal with hardship can lead to addictive and self-destructive behaviors. How do you prepare your kids for the hardest moments in life?

Some hardships in life you just can’t predict, but there are still steps you can take to prepare. Your teen doesn’t know when a grandparent is going to be diagnosed with an illness, but you can teach your teen about resilience through a mental toughness activity. More often than not, teaching your kid mental toughness is knowing when to role model, and when to step back and let them learn on their own. It’s a fine line!

To help understand what actions parents can take to help their child with mental toughness, I spoke with Amy Morin. Amy is one of the world’s leading experts on mental strength, and she is all about practical advice. Her TED Talk has over 13 million views and is one of the 30 most popular talks of all time. It sheds light on what a true mental toughness activity looks like. She is a foster parent with incredible stories about resilience, and the author of the international bestseller, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.

On this episode I got to talk to her about her new book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. (Yes, Parents, specifically.)

At this point, some of you might be asking, “Wait, I thought this was about mental strength for kids?”

Teenage Resistance to Behavior Modification

It’s true, Amy wrote this book because one of the top questions she got from the first was, “What’s a mental toughness activity for kids that actually works?”

Amy agrees that this is a valid question. Kids don’t go to kindergarten and first grade to learn a mental toughness activity, but they are immediately swamped with homework and the fear of messing up.

Kids need to learn cognitive social skills earlier. Studies show that kids in college feel academically prepared, but lack the social and emotional skills to deal with stress, loneliness, and other new life problems. If school isn’t teaching a mental toughness activity at all, parents are left responsible for teaching kids resilience. This is okay!

Amy points out that, as a parent, you probably know your kid’s tendencies better than anyone. This also means that your kid is aware of your tendencies as a parent. When children enter the teen years, they are sensitively tuned into the ways you might try to modify their behavior and often pull away. It’s going to be tricky to teach a mental toughness activity (or any life lesson) if they’re trying to differentiate from you.

Studies show the need for teenage autonomy peaks at 14. Having autonomy means grasping for your own authority. It can be threatening for parents when their household authority is questioned by teens in a power struggle. How do you keep control when your teenager is pushing back more and more?

Amy says it’s important for a parent to show they’re in charge, but that they value their kid’s opinion. Ultimately, teenage pushback is going to ruffle your feathers, but if you can keep your cool and your values, it can be an opportunity to role model mental toughness. Amy believes that modeling values is an effective, albeit subliminal, mental toughness activity.

Role Modeling Values

Why is mental toughness so hard to teach to a teenager?

Bad situations are opportunities to make a good choice as a parent. How you respond to negative situations communicates your values. You just have to clarify what life lesson you’re trying to impart. This isn’t always easy! 

Amy gives an example of a dad who told his son to clean up his toys before the rain came or he would throw them out. The son disobeyed the dad, and the toys got rained on. Now the dad had to decide whether or not he would go forward on his word. He didn’t want to throw his son’s toys out, but he also didn’t want to have to apologize to his son for saying something he didn’t mean.

Amy firmly believes, though, that if you underscore the life lesson you want to teach, you will know what you have to do. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to apologize to their kids.

If parents can role model overcoming fear of apologizing to their children, it will be a lot easier to teach teens to overcome fear when they encounter it. If teens see you facing your fear, they’ll be a little bit more receptive when you try to engage them in a mental toughness activity.

Teaching Teens to Tolerate Fear

Teaching your kid a mental toughness activity to tolerate fear will help them grow in resilience, and be more prepared for stressful situations as an adult.

You might think that teens have no fear. They’re trying drugs and driving cars too fast, but they are still scared to do things like give a presentation or admit their mistakes.

You might think you’re doing them a favor by saying,

“It’s not a big deal.”

“That presentation will be over before you know it. Don’t even worry about it.”

But minimizing teens’ fears doesn’t help them learn about overcoming obstacles!

Amy says a conversation can help so much. Asking a teen about his or her worries shows that fear isn’t something to be minimized, but something that they need to go through. When you are validating your teen’s fears and giving them your attention, you will find the opportunity to teach him or her a mental toughness activity. Amy even offers some examples of healthy ways teens can cope with their discomfort.

Takeaways for Parents!

When the hardest days in life happen, facing your emotions can be terrifying. Amy has learned from painful life experiences that you should not let fear stop you.

There’s no one mental toughness activity that can fully prepare a person for grief and loss, but there are tools and strategies that you can give your kids for when that day comes. Sometimes, you might find a mental toughness activity that your teen eagerly adopts. Other times the best you can do is be a role model! Either way, every teen is different and needs their own mental toughness activity that works for them. Thankfully, Amy knows what she’s talking about and has a lot that she’s willing to share. Other topics we discuss in this interview include:

  • Why kids need to be bored sometimes
  • Letting your kid learn how to fail
  • “Speak Up or Shut Up” – the art of walking this fine line
  • Your kid with authorities
  • How to set good rules in the house
  • Shared journaling
  • Parents on learning tech savviness
  • The effects of social media on teens
  • Power struggles in the house
  • Competition to family values

Amy is so patient and caring. I can tell she really loves sharing her stories and helping people of all ages grow in mental strength. She’s a wealth of information on this topic, so I hope you get a chance to tune in!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When your teen wants to break the rules, affirm their autonomy but hold firm:

“Sure, you can use your phone whenever you want. As soon as your room is clean, like we agreed. You’re 14 now so I can’t physically force you to do anything but those are the rules. As an adult I don’t have to go to work. But if I don’t, there will be consequences. So I’m going to treat you like an adult and leave the final decision up to you.”

-Amy Morin

2.  When your teen is worrying about something they have to do:

(Members Only)

3.  Get your teen thinking about social media on a deeper level:

(Members Only)

4.  If you find yourself in a power struggle with a teenager, take responsibility for the argument yourself rather than blaming the teen:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Make Your Own Coping Strategies Obvious:

One of the most important things you can teach your teenager is how to manage and regulate their emotions. And Amy told me that the first place parents should look is in making your own coping strategies more clear and obvious so your teen can see you using them. What do you do when you feel anxious or afraid? Do you take slow deep breaths? Close your eyes? Think about a happy memory? Take a few moments and jot down all the strategies you can think of that you use to deal with intense emotions. Next, for each strategy, write down how you could make this more obvious when you use it. For instance, you could say, “give me a minute to take a few deeps breaths and calm down,” or, “hold on, I’m getting frustrated, let me find a happy memory.” This way you model healthy emotional coping for your teen. Any says modeling is even more important than what you tell your teen.

2.  Model How to Handle Screwing Something Up:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I’d love to just dive into this book. This is the followup to the first book, which was 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, and now we have 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. There is so much content in here, but I’m really curious. Why did you think, after writing the first book and getting such a positive reaction on it, that we needed a more specific book for parents?

Amy: It really came out of the questions I had from readers. I kept getting the same question over and over again, where people kept saying, “How do we teach kids how to be mentally strong?” And I could have written a book for kids, but I don’t know too many ten-year-olds that would read the book and then be able to apply it. I really wanted to teach parents how do you become a mental strength coach. Because I think… The other comment I kept getting from readers was, “I just wish I would have learned this 20 or 30 years ago.” I think it would be so powerful if we can start teaching kids how to do this stuff now so that when they grow up, they’ll already have a whole bunch of tools that they can use.

Andy: Yeah. You know, I’ve seen research actually that the order that we teach kids concepts in elementary school is maybe backwards. Where their brain is actually better learning to read a little bit later and certain math things a little later, but maybe earlier we should be teaching them more metacognitive skills and emotion regulation, and just like basic social things and how to be mentally strong.

Amy: Yeah. Because what good does it do? Let’s say your kid becomes the tennis star or she’s really good at math, but if she can’t control her emotions, she’s not going to succeed. And so I think it’s super important. I don’t know why we don’t spend more time teaching kids. In fact, studies will show that even college kids, when they asked them, “Were you prepared for college?” The vast majority of them say, “Well, academically I was,” but 60% of them say, “I don’t have the social skills, I don’t have the emotional skills that I needed. I don’t know how to deal with being scared and lonely or depressed or anxious without my parents right here next to me.” I think it’s so important that we start teaching these skills.

Andy: Okay. Now the question is, is that just a phenomenon of going to college in general, or is that some sort of a symptom of this technology driven world that they’re growing up in now?

Amy: I think that’s definitely part of it. I think digital devices are great and they can be great tools, but I also think for kids, it gives them this escape. You know, when I was a kid, I had to be bored sometimes. I had to…

Andy: Yes.

Amy: And if I was lonely, I had to figure out how to deal with that. Or if I was sad, I had to figure out how do you cope with that. But I think so many kids now use their phones, their tablets, their laptops, to sort of escape any uncomfortable emotions. Even when you see kids in the back of the car, instead of just having to look out the window and entertain themselves, they’ve got some sort of handheld device and a lot of parents won’t travel without something that will entertain their kids. And so kids don’t know, how do you deal with being bored, or what happens when you have to do something you don’t want to do? And I think that really is doing kids a disservice in a lot of ways.

Andy: Just the other day over the weekend, my young cousin is eight years old and he’s on the flag football team. Their games of the season are just like right down the street from our house. We’ve been going every week and it’s a total blast. They’re really short. But it was the Super Bowl, the final game this weekend. And they won first place, he was so excited. This kid is just a natural athlete. He’s involved in every play, he’s just all over the field.

Andy: But so his mom was telling me that he just tried out for an indoor soccer team recently, a really good one, and he didn’t get in. And it was kind of the first time. He’s such a natural athlete, eight years old, everything he ever tried to do he’s totally been the best kid on the team. And she was like, “I think it was really good for him to see that level and to not make it.” And I thought it was so cool that she recognized that. And what you were saying really made me think of it where you were like, “I had to be bored and I had to be lonely.” And you used those kinds of like negative words as positives almost, right? And sometimes they are.

Amy: Yeah. I think that’s really cool to let kids be rejected sometimes. I know so many parents, if their kid doesn’t make the all star team, they go to bat for them and try to convince the coaches, “Put my kid on the team.” No, this is a life lesson.

Andy: You’re missing the point. Right, yeah.

Amy: Right. Your kid fails sometimes. That’s great, because not making the team isn’t the worst thing in the world. And you want them to know, how do you fail? How do you be rejected? How do you not be the best? Because you’re not always going to be the best in life.

Andy: What I thought was really cool about this book is that, like you said, it’s about how to teach your kids how to be more mentally strong. But also it’s kind of about how to be more mentally strong as a parent. You know, you had some really emotional stories in this book of parents who are really struggling to get control of their teenagers. And you make a good point, which is that just because your kid isn’t listening to you doesn’t mean that they’re not listening to anybody, right? Parents are quick to say, “Oh, my kid is doing this wrong, my kid’s doing that wrong.” And everything that’s wrong is something that’s wrong with the kid. But a lot of times maybe there’s things that you could do as a parent that maybe if you were a little more mentally strong in some ways, then that would allow you to have more influence over your kid.

Amy: Yeah, I think for a lot of parents it’s tough to know, “Okay, when I tell my kid not to do something and he still does it, then he’s not listening to me.” And it can be threatening to them then if an uncle, an aunt, a doctor, somebody, a teacher, coach, somebody gives your kid advice and they listen to that advice. The same advice you gave them from somebody else, parents feel bad.

Andy: It’s like, “What the heck?”

Amy: Right. To know that, that’s just the way it is. I think all of us sometimes rolled our eyes and our parents gave us a lecture or advice about something. And that’s just part of the way it’s supposed to be. But to know that as a parent, your kids pay way more attention to what you do rather than what you say. And so if you are dealing with tough things in your life in a way that is healthy, then your kids learn to how to deal with that by watching you. And even though you think that they’re not watching, they are, and they’re picking up on all of these little things, how do you handle problems in your life? Or you spend a lot of time complaining, or do you go in there and solve problems in a creative way? All of these things that you do every single day is what your kid is picking up on.

Andy: I like that. And it’s funny because I’m working on a book right now. And one of the things that the editor had recently come back with was that as an expert, it’s our job to kind of like help people find the fine line between when to do one thing and when to do another thing. And where’s the subtleties there. And there’s an idea in your book that I really liked, called speak up or shut up. And you talk about how, sometimes you want your kids to be proactive and to say, “Hey, wait a minute. What about me? I didn’t get one.” All right? Sometimes you do want them to speak up and then sometimes it’s time to shut up and learn a lesson and instill some respect for an adult or whatever. And don’t say anything or say I’m sorry, or whatever. And kind of helping them to find that line. I wonder how you do that as a parent.

Amy: Yeah. That’s a challenge. How do you teach your kids to advocate for themselves, but to advocate at the right time?

Andy: Yeah.

Amy: If the teacher says, “Everybody did a great job today, and now the whole class gets a piece of candy,” but she somehow overlooked your kid and forgot to pass one out to him, you want him to be able to raise his hand and say, “Can I have mine?” But on the other hand, if he’s in the baseball game and the umpire calls a strike and he thinks it was a ball, you don’t want him to turn around to the empire and start to argue.

Andy: Sure, right. Right.

Amy: And so I think it’s about having conversations with your child to say when do you speak up? And what if it’s an authority figure? If somebody’s bossing you around, when do you need to listen? But when do you also need to say, “Hey, I’m not going to do that.” And if your coach tells you to do something, then you should usually do it. But maybe there’s something that you think, “That’s not safe or I don’t want to do it.” And I think it’s just a lot of conversations with kids.

Amy: And a lot of, again, role modeling. Somebody cuts in line in front of you at the grocery store. Do you speak up? Well, it sort of depends. Right? You get pulled over by the police and he says you were speeding and you don’t think you were, what do you do? And I think pointing it out to kids. “I didn’t speak up when that elderly person cut in front of me because I thought that doesn’t matter. And that’s okay. And we’ll let that person go first.”

Andy: It was probably a mistake versus it was malicious. What’s the intent behind it?

Amy: Exactly. And having all of those sorts of conversations. Because I think there are learning moments and kids don’t always understand why we do certain things, and they leave it up to their own interpretation if we don’t explain it to them.

Andy: You were talking about how sometimes you might need to talk about encouraging them to speak up more and sometimes you might need to be encouraging them not to. And I wonder, as a parent, you probably would know that a kid has a certain tendency in one direction to the other. I can see there being, from kid’s perspective, sort of recognizing that your parent is trying to kind of modify your behavior or something like that.

Andy: I’m really fascinated by this like idea of reactants. I think it’s just so big with parent-child dynamics, especially during the teenage years where kids are trying to differentiate from their parents. If you’ve got a shy kid, then when you have this conversation you’re going to be mostly trying to encourage them on times when they can speak up more. Right? Do you think that we ever have to kind of watch out when we’re having those types of conversations? And how do we keep that in mind, or do it in a way that doesn’t cause a defensive reaction in the kid?

Amy: Yeah. I think it’s important to take notice. When you’re encouraging your child to do something different that your child is going to probably push back for several reasons. First of all, because your mom or dad. Also, because it’s not comfortable to them. If you have a kid who is impulsive and just blurts out, “That’s not fair,” every time something happens, and you’re trying to teach him how do you not do that.

Andy: I’ve got to restrain this impulse. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Amy: Right. And you know, one problem some parents struggle with is each of their kids are different. You might have one kid that you’re trying to say, “You need to speak up more,” but yet you’re turning to the other kid and saying, “Quit speaking up so much.” And from kids’ perspectives they think, “Well, that’s not fair. I don’t understand.”

Amy: Again, I just think it’s about having ongoing conversations and explaining what are the pros and cons. If you speak up and you yell at the umpire, what might happen? And just talking to kids about the consequences. And sometimes it’s about letting them make mistakes and letting them face the natural consequences. If you speak up to your coach and you say, “I’m not going to do that,” well, maybe you don’t get to play in the game. Or if you speak up to your teacher and say, “I deserve an A, even though I got 12 answers wrong,” well, let’s see what your teacher says to you about that.

Amy: I think there’s a fine line and there’s no right or wrong answers. And sometimes for parents it’s an experiment. “Well, let’s see what happens if I let him make this mistake. And then is he going to learn a lesson from it too?”

Andy: You have a really unique experience on the differences between kids, because of your experience as a foster parent. You write about this in your book, all these different kids who have come through your home and who you’ve cared for. And it must just give you a really unique lens into kind of how unique each kid is, and how you need to adapt to different kids. I wonder if what you were just saying is, you run little tests, almost. “See what happens if we let them fail at this,” or, “See what happens…” Is that your process? Or how do you rapidly sort of assess where a kid is and how you might have to behave differently yourself?

Amy: Yeah. It’s an experiment sort of in itself. When I get a foster child, sometimes it’s I get a call it two o’clock in the afternoon. And it says, somebody says, “Hey, can you take this kid?” They’re going to be there in an hour.

Andy: Wow.

Amy: And I basically have no information other than when somebody drops them off, they hand me a few pieces of paper and give me maybe a 10-minute rundown. And then they leave. And I’m with this child that is a complete… We’re strangers.

Andy: Wow. Yeah, yeah.

Amy: And I have no idea what sort of things I might encounter. It’s sort of being, starting out, fairly strict and having some tight rules and then figuring out how much can I relax those rules. How much can I let them explore while trusting that they’re going to be okay?

Andy: Interesting.

Amy: Yeah. I do a lot of that, where sometimes we loosen the reins a little too much and you got to tighten them back up.

Amy: But I think it’s similar for parents. As your kid grows, you have to figure out, “How much can I loosen the reins? How much freedom can I give them?” And then when they mess up to know, “Okay, are they learning a lesson from this? Do I need to step in and give them more guidance? Do I need to teach them certain skills that they don’t have yet?” You know, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to parenting decisions. It’s more of a art within a science, I think a lot of times.

Andy: Sure. But it strikes me that the method you describe is such a microcosm of parenting in general, right?

Amy: Right.

Andy: Of starting strict, and then relaxing, relaxing, relaxing, and seeing how much you can relax. Until you kind of get to what we were talking about earlier, finding that fine line between how do you walk the line between giving them more freedom, and holding firm to some kind of rules. And where does that line need to be for this particular kid? And it’s probably different in every situation. I think that’s so interesting.

Andy: You talk about teaching teenagers to tolerate fear, which I think is cool. We touched kind of on emotional regulation, but we do alcohol research in our lab, adolescent risk behaviors. And I think a lot of that really comes down to emotion regulation. Students who are using substances to cope with negative affect of various kinds. You talk about normalizing your teen’s uncomfortable feelings by kind of talking about the stuff that’s happened to you as well. What else are good ways to help teens learn about tolerating fear?

Amy: I think it’s having some conversations about it. We tend to minimize kids’ fear. And we think we’re doing them a favor by saying, “Oh, it’s not a big deal,” or. “That presentation will be over before you know it. Don’t even worry about it.” Well, they are worried about it. It’s better to talk to them about it. “Yeah, what are your worries? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Tell me about it. What’s scaring you?” And then talk about, “Now how do you cope with that scary feeling?” Maybe you decide I’m going to call a friend, maybe I’m going to write in a journal, but to give them concrete coping strategies. And to know that just because something feels scary doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do it.

Amy: And with teens, you walk a fine line, right? Sometimes we know teens take really ridiculous risks, whether they’re speeding in a car or they’re experimenting with drugs, or they’re out there doing this sort of crazy stunts, yet giving a presentation in class is terrifying. They think, “Well, I can’t do that!”

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Amy: And so to have conversations about danger and actual risk and how your fear isn’t related to the actual level of risk. Just because it feels scary to give a presentation to your class, doesn’t mean it’s actually dangerous. But on the other hand, just don’t minimize their fear, but to acknowledge, “Yeah. When something feels really scary, how do you get through it?” Maybe your heart beats fast, maybe your face turns red, your palms get sweaty and you start thinking everybody’s laughing at me. Whatever it is, it’s good to know we all experience that sometimes. And how do you get through it?

Andy: Yeah. This just is such a theme of your book. I think that those kinds of negatives are actually positives. Kind of like we were talking earlier, right? I love what you’re saying. An instance where your teenager is having some anxiety, is afraid, and the reaction as a parent is just to [inaudible 00:15:32] the feeling. Or it makes us feel bad too if our kid is feeling bad, I think. Right? We want to just stop this negative feeling as fast as possible, but actually this isn’t something bad that we want to get rid of. We want to explore this. This is good because it’s an opportunity for us to teach them some mental strength skills. And I always love when you can just adjust your mindset like that and start to see things from a different perspective. And that was really cool, I think.

Amy: Yeah. I think any opportunity, when you look at your child struggling with anything, is to say, “What skills can I teach my child? How do I turn this into a teachable moment?” And give them that gift rather than just trying to take that away from them. Rather than solving their problems for them, or convincing them that their concerns aren’t a big deal, teach them how do you deal with problems in life.

Andy: Amy, thank you so much for taking the time to, A, write this incredible book, because I know this was not an easy thing to write. It’s massive. I really hope that lots of people pick it up, because it’s an incredible book and packed with a lot of great insight and backed by research.

Amy: Well, thank you so much.

About Amy Morin

As a psychotherapist turned author, Amy’s mission is to make the world a stronger place. Her education and expertise as a psychotherapist, combined with her personal experiences overcoming tragedy, give her a unique perspective on mental strength.

In 2013, Amy introduced the world to the concept of mental strength when her article, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, became an anthem read by more than 50 million people.

She’s been dubbed the “self-help guru of the moment,” by The Guardian and Forbes refers to her as a “thought leadership star.” Her advice has been featured by numerous media outlets including Time, Fast Company, Success, Business Insider, Oprah.com, Fox News, CNN, CNBC, and Today. She also appears in a Red Bull TV show called Visions of Greatness.

She lectures across the globe to provide trainings, workshops, and keynote speeches that teach people how to build their mental muscle. Students from 42 countries access her online mental strength course.

Amy’s also a lecturer at Northeastern University. She is a columnist for Forbes, Inc., and Psychology Today. She also serves as a parenting expert for Verywell.

Fast facts about Amy:

Find Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.