Kids today are suffering higher levels of depression and psychological distress than their predecessors, and the pandemic only made things worse. But despite the odds, some are able to become “Thrivers.” Parenting expert and best-selling author Dr. Michele Borba gives insights into the seven traits that help kids succeed.
Published: April 23, 2021
By: Dr. Michele Borba
Today’s kids are the smartest and most driven on record. But many of them are also the loneliest, most stressed, most risk-averse, and most depressed. And that was before the pandemic. A year of COVID-driven fear and isolation has worsened the mental health of many of our young people.
And yet some kids are still managing to thrive, says Dr. Michele Borba. What’s their secret? It comes down to seven traits that make kids healthier, happier, and more resilient.
“The reason some kids struggle while others shine has nothing to do with genes, GPAs, or playing certain sports or instruments,” says Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2021, ISBN: 978-0-593-08527-1, $27.00). “It’s all about their ability to develop a few key strengths that can transform them from strivers to thrivers and set them up for happiness and accomplishment later in life.
“Thrivers are children who are ready and able to take on the twenty-first century with a ‘we got this’ kind of attitude,” adds Borba. “They meet the world on their own terms because they know they can control their own destiny. And so, they keep trying despite challenges and are more likely to rebound from adversity with confidence.”
For the past decade, Borba has researched the seven strengths that create the mental toughness, social competence, moral strength, and emotional agility of thrivers. These strengths also provide protective buffers all kids need to face hardships, reduce anxiety, and lead meaningful and successful lives.
But kids don’t just magically pick up these traits—they’ve got to be taught. And a single chat or some other moment in time isn’t effective. The best lessons are taught and nurtured organically and often. They’re natural and included in kids’ daily lives. Read on for a rundown of the seven essential strengths kids need, and some tips to help parents teach them.
SELF-CONFIDENCE: Thrivers know who they are.
Self-confidence, that quiet understanding of “who I am,” nurtures inner assuredness and appreciation of one’s unique qualities, strengths, and interests—and serves as a child’s customized road map to peak performance. Self-confidence also helps kids navigate life, stay the course, rebound from setbacks, and provide sorely needed inner resources to manage adversity.
Tips for Teaching Self-Confidence:
- Discover your child’s “who.” Identify a few legitimate strengths that you want your child to recognize about himself. Acknowledge them so your child knows exactly what he did to deserve recognition. Carve time for your child to develop these strengths: They can become a refuge when things fall apart.
- Stress their strengths, not their weaknesses. You can help your child recognize what they do well by asking the following questions: “What subject/activity did you like most?” “What did you look forward to doing?” “What was your proudest (easiest, hardest) moment?” “What did you learn about yourself?” “What did you improve?” “What activity do you hope to do again?”
- Watch your footwork. Kids are more likely to thrive when they are in control. Start slowly stepping back so your child pulls you in the direction he wants to go.
“We develop self-confidence by doing things successfully,” notes Borba. “But many parents overschedule kids, thinking we’re enriching their lives. Then, because the kids are so busy, we do things for them that they should be doing on their own. This type of ‘helicopter parenting’ can actually squash budding self-confidence. It takes away the opportunity for skill-building. When kids do simple things for themselves, like making their own doctor appointments, they start to learn what they can achieve on their own. They start to gain confidence.”
EMPATHY: Thrivers think “we,” not “me.”
Empathy is anything but soft and fluffy: It affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness and relationship satisfaction, and fosters resilience to overcome setbacks. Trying to raise “successful” kids without empathy shrinks thriving potential and boosts loneliness and emptiness, so kids feel depleted. Thrivers require social competence and healthy relationships to overcome setbacks and forge ahead.
Tips for Teaching Empathy:
- Help them label emotions. Kids need a feeling vocabulary to feel with others so name emotions in context: “You’re happy…frustrated…upset.” Ask often, “How do you feel?” until you can ask, “How does she/he/they feel?”
- Provide caring opportunities. Find ongoing ways to inspire your child to practice caring. (For example, they might help a sibling or rake leaves for a homebound neighbor.) Acknowledge them with the same gusto that you have for their academics and sports so your kids know you value prosocial behaviors.
- Widen their circles of concern. It’s easier to empathize with those “like us”: our gender, race, culture, education, age, and income. To foster empathy, widen your child’s social networks.
“Many parents try to ‘curate’ empathy,” says Borba. “While they might think exposing their kids to volunteer opportunities will develop this trait, it’s not enough. A volunteer project is a single moment in time. A better approach is allowing kids to widen their circles and organically develop relationships with people who have different life circumstances. This can help them better understand and share others’ feelings and can lead them to act with compassion.”
SELF-CONTROL: Thrivers have coping skills to put the brakes on impulses.
The ability to control your attention, emotions, thoughts, actions, and desires is one of the most highly correlated strengths to success, and a surprising untapped secret to helping kids bounce back and thrive. As self-control plummets, stress builds, and kids’ abilities to focus, delay temptations and regulate behavior decreases. Before you try building your child’s self-control, seriously reflect on your own behavior. For instance: How do you act in front of your kids when your self-control is lacking? We are living textbooks to our kids. Model what you hope your child catches.
Tips for Teaching Self-Control:
- Help them recognize stress warnings. Point out your child’s stress signs until she can recognize them. For example, say: “Your hands are in a fist.” “You’re grinding your teeth.” “Your feet are bouncing.”
- Teach your kids 1-2 breathing. This type of breathing consists of taking a slow, deep breath and then exhaling twice as long as the inhale. This gets oxygen to the brain and helps kids stay in control.
- Teach them to use positive phrases. Positive words (like “I’ve got this!” “Breathe!” “Stay calm. Carry on.”) can override the fear signal in our brains and reduce stress. Offer a range and encourage your child to choose one phrase until it’s automatic.
“Children today live in a more high-stress environment than previous generations, and this creates a lot of opportunities for breakdowns,” says Borba. “It is likely harder for them to learn self-control than it was for us. Yet when we try to excuse their behavior by saying, “They have a lot going on”—or worse, remove them from stressful situations—we do them no favors. They need to master the tools for self-control so they can thrive in a stressful world.”
INTEGRITY: Thrivers have strong moral codes and know what they stand for.
Children with integrity are true to themselves and honest with others, as well as tenacious, responsible, courageous, and resilient. This fourth strength sets boundaries, provides inner power to resist temptations, and offers kids guidance on how to act the right way even when we’re not there. Integrity isn’t made up of DNA (or GPA) but of learned beliefs, skills, and attitudes to help kids become their personal best and thrive—the exact type of people we need in our callous, me-first world.
Tips for Teaching Integrity:
- Praise integrity when your child displays it. Describe the action so your child knows what he did that deserves recognition, so he will be more likely to repeat the behavior.
- Use virtue mantras. Find one that fits your family’s values like “Honesty is the best policy.” “Always be kind.” “Tell the truth.” Keep repeating and explaining the one phrase in context until your kids can use it without you.
- Find a “kid-concern” cause. Contribution can develop integrity, if the experience is developmentally appropriate and meaningful. Find a project that matches your child’s passion like volunteering at a soup kitchen or playing games with kids at a shelter.
“Integrity is one of the toughest strengths to instill because with so few other parents teaching it to their kids, it might seem unfair to your child,” says Borba. “Lack of integrity is an overwhelming problem for adults in our society, so don’t be surprised if you get some pushback when you try to teach it to your kids.”
CURIOSITY: Thrivers think outside the box.
Curiosity helps children to find solutions, challenges them to explore diverse ideas, motivates them to follow their passions, and encourages them to greet each day with “What else can I discover?” And when kids face obstacles, this strength helps them think of ways to resolve their problem and find new ways to “pick themselves up and start all over again.” Curiosity prepares our children for an uncertain twenty-first century, helps them thrive both in and out of classrooms, and must be developed.
Tips for Teaching Curiosity:
- Use open-ended toys, gadgets, and games. Creative kids thrive on experiences where they can let their imaginations go wild and don’t have to worry about “right” answers.
- Stretch inquisitiveness. Instead of “That won’t work,” try: “Let’s see what happens!” Instead of giving answers, ask: “How do you know?” or “How can you find out?”
- Allow solitude. Creative kids need time to imagine. Keep an eye on your child’s schedule, and carve in downtime without digital devices. You may need to help your child learn to enjoy his own company. Thrivers generally have hobbies they use to help decompress.
“Our access to technology has squelched the curiosity in kids today,” says Borba. “Now that they can instantly Google any topic, they are less likely to spend time wondering about subjects that interest them. Instead, their minds are preoccupied with social media and other meaningless ‘noise.’ Reclaiming their curiosity empowers them to try new ideas, take risks, and innovate.”
PERSEVERANCE: Thrivers persist without gold stars and trophies.
Perseverance is the trait that pushes the envelope to help kids thrive and often makes the critical difference in whether they succeed or fail. This strength keeps kids on track, gets them closer to their dreams, and helps them thrive—and can be stretched and improved with the right lessons. It’s all why we must add teaching this sixth strength to our parenting lessons.
Tips for Teaching Perseverance:
- Erase: “Mistakes are bad.” When your child makes a mistake on a test, say: “A success secret is figuring out how to learn from mistakes so you don’t repeat the same error. Let’s look at your test and find how to correct it.”
- Redefine success as a “GAIN.” For example, you might say: “Monday, you got two words correct; today you got five! That’s a GAIN!” Or: “Last week you hit one run; today you got two. That’s a GAIN!”
- Cultivate a growth mindset. Praising your child’s effort, not the end product, helps kids recognize that success isn’t locked into DNA but increases with hard work and practice.
“Life today has become a series of short-term engagements,” says Borba. “We see this even in the gig economy. Culturally, people are no longer encouraged to keep up with anything we are not happy doing in the moment, or to struggle to master something. No wonder our kids are so inclined to just give up. Teaching perseverance counteracts all this. It encourages tenacity and the resolve to bounce back.”
OPTIMISM: Thrivers find the silver lining.
Optimistic kids view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, and so they are more likely to keep on going and succeed despite adversity. Ungrounded pessimistic thinking erodes resilience, shortchanges thriving abilities, and erodes hope. But optimism can be taught.
Tips for Teaching Optimism:
- Keep your pessimism in check. Our negativity and fears spill over to our kids and can erode their positive outlook on life. Be the model you want your kids to copy.
- Share good news. Look for uplifting stories of everyday good guys in newspapers, websites, or the community to help your child focus on the positives. Review them at family meals or text inspiring stories to each other.
- Develop a positive motto. Help your child create a mantra like “I got this,” “I can do it,” or “I can handle it” to counter negative thoughts. Make it sticky and easy to remember.
“It’s culturally popular to have a pessimistic mindset,” says Borba. “Cynicism is cool. There’s a 24/7 stream of bad news coming at them from all directions. Plus, the social media factor makes it easy for kids to unfavorably compare themselves to others. The ability to remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty is a survival skill. There can be no resilience without it.”
The bottom line: To thrive in a technologically driven, fear-based, rapidly changing twenty-first-century world—and during a pandemic no less—kids need more than grades, scores, and trophies.
“They need the strength of heart, mind, and will,” concludes Borba. “The seven essential Character Strengths build strong inner foundations so kids can handle life’s inevitable bumps and lead successful, fulfilled lives. Developing them may well be the greatest parenting gift we can give, because our children will have protective factors to face inevitable hardships and be more likely to live meaningful lives without us.”
About the Author:
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has spoken in nineteen countries on five continents, and served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and corporations including Sesame Street, Harvard, U.S. Air Force Academy, eighteen U.S. Army bases in Europe and the Asian-Pacific, H.H. the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and a TEDx Talk: “Empathy Is a Verb.” She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career working with over one million parents and educators worldwide. She is a regular NBC contributor who appears regularly on Today and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband and is the mother of three grown sons.