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Mendo Lake Family Life

Tough Kids with Kind Hearts

By Sarah R. Moore

The world can be a tricky place. If we want to raise mentally tough kids who don’t become jaded—or worse, part of the problem—we need to empower them to address challenges in emotionally intelligent ways. We need to raise them to have both grit and compassion for others. In other words, we need to raise tough kids with kind hearts. This is truly the work of conscious parenting.

Tough times call for mentally strong children. Parents often believe that kids are too young to talk about difficult issues and situations when they arise. But this is a mistake. If children are likely to walk down the street and see a particular situation with their own eyes, they’re not too young for an age-appropriate discussion about that situation.

In fact, if we don’t have brave discussions with our kids, we do them a disservice. Family is the safest place for children to learn and create healthy narratives about life’s difficulties. 

For example, years ago when we were living in a big city, someone told me they thought my child, then age three, was too young to hear about homelessness. However, we walked past people in need every day on her way to preschool and she asked questions. It was a prime opportunity to teach her about compassion.

Don’t we have to be harsh with kids to toughen them up? Absolutely not. To the contrary, for their optimal development, we need to give kids “a soft place to land,” as author Deborah Harkness so aptly put it. That means that we need to offer them emotional safety. And what makes them feel safe is very much about their psycho-neurobiology.

Here’s what my book, Peaceful Discipline: Story Teaching, Brain Science, and Better Behavior (Pond Reads Press, 2022) says about this:

“...when [kids are] emotionally triggered, the limbic system (a more primitive part of the brain) takes over and effectively shuts off the frontal lobe, where most of our rational thoughts live. The limbic system’s sole purpose is to keep us alive. The frontal lobe is where we can think about others’ experiences, offer compassion, and understand the consequences of our actions.

The limbic system doesn’t understand that we’ll ever be all right again, because it’s not planning ahead—it’s trying to keep us safe in this moment only. Our goal, therefore, is to help the body feel safety so that our frontal lobe can come back and join the whole brain party. No one can talk us into safety if our limbic system is overriding it; we must feel it for ourselves.”

The frontal lobe needs to be “online” in order for children to learn. When children feel safe, not only do they exhibit fewer behavioral issues, but also they’re more likely to be able to grow through tough situations rather than be hindered by them. We make them feel safe with gentleness, not harshness; with our open door and listening ears, not punishments.

Tough kids need empathy (we all do). Two of the best gifts an adult can model for a child are empathy and emotional maturity. If a child is “acting tough” but displays no empathy, they’re more likely to end up struggling in school and at home.

The most effective way to raise a child who has empathy is for the parent to model empathy.

Parents can do this a couple of ways. For example, they can validate, rather than dismiss, children’s emotions. For example, if a tough event happens at school, the parent can say things like, “Gosh, that sounds really hard. I understand why you’re so sad. You make sense to me.”

This is a much more effective approach than dismissing a child’s feelings with statements like “That’s nothing to worry about. You’re such a crybaby.”

Tough kids—especially those who’ve been raised in or experienced tough circumstances—need extra empathy from us, not less. It’s part of what helps them feel “seen” and softens their rough edges.

Showing up matters. If you want to raise a tough kid with a kind heart, focus foremost on their hearts, and the rest will fall into place. 

This article is an edited version of the original, which was published here. 

Sarah R. Moore is author of Peaceful Discipline: Story Teaching, Brain Science & Better Behavior and the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. As a mother and certified Master Trainer in conscious parenting, Moore helps bring joy, ease, and connection back to families around the globe. Follow her on InstagramFacebook, YouTube and Twitter.