Taking on Challenges

Ellen Galinsky
July 12, 2010

I have a friend who retreats whenever he experiences a setback. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's a big setback (a project that he is working on getting a negative review) or a small setback (someone whom he wants to see not being available), he retreats all the same. He can find a million reasons why his next project won't work before anyone tells him so. And he doesn't call the person again who didn't happen to be available.

I don't know what happened to this man during childhood or adulthood to turn him into someone who won't take on a challenge, but I do know that it is an incredible loss of talent-he is a very gifted person so I have hopes that he will learn to stop sabotaging himself.

I do know that I want my children and yours to learn to take on challenges because the world they have been born into is filled with complexity and challenge. I see this as one of the essential skills children need to learn and there is a great deal of guidance on how to help them do so from the research I reviewed for my book, Mind in the Making:

1. Understand that they need to learn to deal with-rather than be protected from-managing stress. As Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota and one of the foremost scholars on stress and coping says, "A childhood that has no stress in it would not prepare you for adulthood. If you never allow your child[ren] to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life?" Gunnar does not mean throwing children into the deep water before they can swim, but she also doesn't mean jumping in and fixing everything for them. It is important to allow children to struggle with age-appropriate challenge, to play a part in arriving at solutions and then to experiment with seeing how these solutions work.  Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland, a scholar who conducts research on children's temperaments, has found that children- even when they are inhibited and shy-deal with stress better if their parents don't try to shield their children from having to face problems.

2. Be aware that you are signaling to your children whether to venture out in uncertain situations.  Children look to us when they are in new situations and we tell them, even without words, it is safe or not. This is called "social referencing" and a now classic experiment by Joseph Campos of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrates how it works:


Nathan Fox has found that children are more likely to deal with stress well if their parents don't see danger at every turn.  

3. Give children experiences where they can increasingly have control managing stress. The research of Heidelise Als of the Harvard Medical School shows that even with premature children, we can observe how our infants handle tough situations and then reinforce their own strategies. For example, when my son Philip was an infant, I noticed that he calmed down when I held him up to the light switch so he could turn the lights on and off. That became his way of managing crying jags. When he was older and had nightmares, I asked him to come up with some ideas to help him feel safe at bedtime. His solution was to make a sword out of cardboard and aluminum foil and keep it by his bedside in case he had bad dreams. I also asked him to make a plan for how he was going to manage a new situation (going to a restaurant or a new person's house) and he would come up with some ideas (such as keeping a favorite comfort toy in his pocket) and then try them out.

4. Praise children's efforts and strategies, not their intelligence. Carol Dweck of Stanford University has spent her career studying the children who love a challenge. She says, "I have dedicated my career to unlocking their secrets-any maybe bottling them-so that all children could feel this way about learning."  She has found "mindsets" matter. The children who have a "growth mindset"-where they see their abilities as something they can continue to develop-are the most likely to take on challenges. On the other hand, children who have a "fixed mindset"-where they see their abilities, like intelligence as an inborn capacity-are likely to wilt when faced with difficulties.  Dweck's studies have found that we promote a growth mindset when we praise our children for their efforts ("you worked hard") or their strategies ("you figured out how to solve that problem") rather than for their intelligence ("you are so smart"). 

5. Handle your own stress. Our own stress spills over onto our children. In one of my own studies, I asked children for one wish for improving the way their mother's or father's work affects their life. Did you think children would wish for more time? Most people do, but if given just one wish, children wish that their mothers and fathers would be less tired and stressed. So just as children need time outs, sometimes we do too.  And if a time out isn't possible, then remember to tell your children that you "had a bad day" at work or at home so that they know that your stress is not their fault.  Try to come up with good ways to resolve whatever problem you are facing because children are watching us to see how we manage stress.

When we help children learn how to take on challenges, we are giving them a gift for life!

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Thanks for sharing this great information, Ellen. I am doing some of these things and now feel a stronger need to do them. Thank you for the idea on how to help a child be proactive about dealing with stressful situations. This reminds me of the term I learned when my boy was an infant: self soothing. He is 3 now and I think I can begin him on this concept. In fact, I have been trying my own way but I think it is a bit like bribing. For instance, just today, I made a bargain with him; if he went to my gym's childcare he would get a desired object (a small race car). I did this because he looked very sad and a bit scared to try going to the gym childcare again. He cried a bit the first time (we did just move and switch schools so, that factors into all of this too). I didn't think that giving him the race car would quite be enough so I said that after he went to the childcare he would get a companion for the race car (a desired tow truck). Then, because I did not think he could take these cars with him to the childcare to help him be brave (self soothe) I said that we could donate a desired Dinosaur Train set to the childcare so that it would be there every time he visited. I think I went a little far with all of this but I want him to feel comfortable as soon as possible with going to the childcare because I need to work out. I have been so stressed and my body needs it. If I feel better I can be a better mom :) Additionally, I believe he could use the "stretch goal". I also believed in him and that he could do it and just needed a little help. The outcome? Well, he had a fantastic time and hugged and kissed the caregiver. I think I did the right thing given my knowledge and need. But, I am concerned about tying a success like this to objects/rewards. On the other hand, I talked to my son a lot about it and believe we can work through this and all will be okay. (Note: item #5 is the think I need to work on the most. My stress rubbing off on my son and affecting my family.) I know every situation and person is unique but I wonder what advice or thoughts you may have to offer. Thanks, Christine

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    I don't think it is ever too late to learn how to handle stress or take on challenges! These are constants in everyone's lives that change in shape and form as we grow older. Fantastic article!

    over a year ago


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