When I hear, “Mom, I need help!” or “Mom, I can’t do this,” my first instinct is to spring into action and save the day. But before we don our superhero capes to rescue children from struggle, we need to ask ourselves what we’re accomplishing.
Does sparing children from struggle help or hurt them in the long run?
No one likes to struggle. Struggle is unpleasant and uncomfortable, but there is no growth without it. When we “save” children from struggle, we prevent them from reaching their full potential.
It’s only through struggle that children learn to push past their comfort zone, develop persistence and problem-solving skills, and ultimately increase their capacity to reach goals and contribute to the world.
Why Struggling Is Essential
The temporary discomfort of struggle pays off with significant benefits. Here are seven key reasons why struggle is important for children.
1. Struggle leads to growth
Struggle is an essential component of growth. If we only engage in activities that come easily to us, we’re not stretching ourselves. And if we don’t stretch ourselves, we will never reach our full potential.
If a runner on a high school track team wants to become a distance runner, for instance, they wouldn’t stick to running one mile forever. They would push themselves to run longer and longer distances. At first, it would be tough. But persisting through the difficulty and discomfort would allow growth, making them a stronger runner. The same is true of other physical, academic, and social activities.
Are you familiar with the science of neuroplasticity? Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt. The brain can create new connections and pathways, and it can adjust to new circumstances. When we consistently repeat a difficult activity, our brain forms a pathway, and the activity becomes easier with time.
Research shows that novelty and challenge are necessary for neuroplasticity and enhancing cognitive function. With challenge comes struggle, and with struggle comes learning and growth.
In addition to growing your brain, struggle fuels character growth. Children develop inner strength, persistence, focus, and determination.
2. Struggling enough vs. struggling too much
Of course, it’s counterproductive for a child to struggle with a task that’s simply not developmentally appropriate. Teach children that asking for help is not “giving up.” Instead, it’s another strategy that children can use to solve a tough problem or overcome a big obstacle. There are some tasks they’re not ready to do independently yet.
Consider implementing a rule, such as, “Try three times by yourself, then ask for help if you need it,” or, “Try three different strategies before asking for help.”
If your child asks you to help with something you believe they can do independently, ask guiding questions: “What’s the next small step you can take?” or, “Where do you think we could find that information?”
Ask yourself if you can support them in doing the task at least partly by themselves, or is there a skill they need to learn first that you can teach them?
3. Struggling builds problem-solving skills
Grappling with challenges equips children with the ability to solve problems. Through the process of struggling, children develop creative problem-solving skills. They learn that if one solution doesn’t work, it’s okay to go back to the drawing board and try another. They learn which strategies work and which don’t, and they flex their analytical thinking muscles.
Without struggle, children never encounter problems to work through. If everything is easy, they won’t practice the process of brainstorming, testing an idea, analyzing why an idea didn’t work, and repeating. Mastering this process is necessary for success in school, work, and life.
Even when a strategy doesn’t work, children realize that mistakes and failures are valuable lessons. The ability to learn from what doesn’t work — and reflect on why it didn’t work — will serve children well for a lifetime.
If we protect our children from struggle, we prevent them from developing the skills they need to succeed. If you need some helpful ideas, be sure to check out the problem-solving printable activity in the Growth Mindset Activity Kit.
4. Struggling fosters growth mindset
Naturally, the process of tackling challenges and honing problem-solving skills fosters a growth mindset. Growth mindset shapes children’s responses to adversity both in school and in life, and research links it to academic achievement.
Through struggle, children realize that their brains can grow, they can do hard things, and that mistakes are simply learning opportunities. As a result, they embrace struggle instead of fearing and avoiding it. Instead of wanting to “look smart” or appear perfect, children learn that they can develop and grow their abilities through practice and effort. The process — and the struggle it involves — is even more valuable than the outcome.
Struggle teaches the value of hard work and dedication. Children develop the confidence to deal with the challenges that are a natural part of life.
Growth mindset also builds resilience and a love of learning, which are necessary for innovation and accomplishment. The Big Life Journal 2nd Edition helps children develop strong Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and growth mindset skills and is the perfect way to introduce these important concepts.
5. Struggling teaches children to manage emotions
Struggle results in emotions like frustration, sadness, disappointment, and sometimes anger. While these feelings aren’t exactly pleasant, we all face them on a regular basis. Struggle teaches children how to manage these feelings in a healthy manner.
We shouldn’t bury our feelings, and we shouldn’t use them as excuses to act out. Instead, we should accept feelings without judging them, and we should learn strategies like deep breathing, journaling, meditating, or drawing that help us work through difficult emotions. Struggle provides an opportunity to teach children these vital skills.
6. How to teach self-regulation
The ability to manage feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in the service of a goal is called self-regulation. It includes the ability to cope with tough emotions so that they don’t become crippling or overwhelming.
Self-regulation has a foundational role in physical, emotional, and social well-being, as well as educational achievement and economic health. It’s linked to better performance in school, better relationships, and fewer behavioral problems.
If your child or student becomes frustrated when struggling, walk them through taking some deep breaths. (It’s best to practice deep breathing when children are calm as well, so the skill becomes easily accessible during times of stress.) Express empathy with phrases like, “You seem frustrated. This is hard, but you can handle it.”
If necessary, help the child find strategies that help them calm. Next time the child becomes frustrated, remind them of the strategies that help them manage frustration. Some children also benefit from “calming cards,” or index cards that list strategies to use when they feel certain emotions (e.g, “When I feel frustrated, I can take three deep breaths” or “When I feel sad, I can look at a picture of my family”).
Some children fear failure and may internalize struggle. Talk to children about how failure is part of learning and succeeding. Openly discuss your own failures, and share stories of people who have overcome failure on the path to success. These conversations teach children that failure isn’t unique to them and shouldn’t negatively impact their self-image or self-esteem. The Big Life Journal — Daily Edition offers children a safe space to record their feelings and grow resilient, confident, and emotionally healthy.
7. Struggle builds superheroes
It’s tough for children to struggle, and perhaps even tougher to let our children struggle. But through safe and developmentally appropriate struggle, we help children build the mindset and skills they need for a happy and successful life.
The struggle may not be fun, but it’s necessary for growth and the development of deeply important skills like problem-solving, persistence, and self-regulation. It also fosters confidence and growth mindset. The benefits our children gain from struggling far outweigh the downsides.So, instead of throwing on our superhero capes, let’s empower children to wear their own.