Experts Scrambling Over ‘Mental Toughness’ Of Children

The concept of mental toughness and its implications for child-rearing has sparked a heated debate among mental health experts. While some argue for its revival, others believe it should be permanently discarded.

The term mental toughness, often associated with sports psychology and military training, has been criticized for promoting a harsh self-image that can lead to emotional breakdowns and the suppression of pain. It has also been blamed for the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people.

Amanda Bacon-Davis, the author of a children’s book and the mother of a daughter with severe anxiety, points out that mental toughness often implies hiding weaknesses and keeping emotions locked inside. She believes this contributes to the high suicide rates among military veterans. On the other hand, Laine Lawson Craft, a Christian parenting expert, argues that mental toughness is necessary in today’s culture, which is filled with dark influences from technology. She suggests that providing children with moral support and spiritual guidance can counteract these negative influences.

While some psychologists have moved away from using the term mental toughness, others argue that its essence has always been present. Andrew Colsky, a licensed counselor, believes that growing up in a loving and authoritative household fosters the development of key attributes like analytical thought. He sees mental toughness as a natural outcome of such an upbringing.

The definition of mental toughness remains elusive, but some experts point to positive characteristics valued by competitive athletes, such as analytical thinking, emotional resilience, and the ability to persevere without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Mariska van Sprundel, a science writer specializing in running and exercise, highlights the therapeutic effects of physical activity on mental well-being.

Critics of the term mental toughness prefer alternative phrases like “mental resilience” and “mental health.” They argue that mental toughness encourages unhealthy tendencies toward perfectionism and can exacerbate depression, anxiety, and suicide risks. Amanda Bacon-Davis suggests that mental resilience is a more appropriate term, emphasizing the importance of coping strategies and self-regulation in the face of adversity.

Therapists acknowledge the value of both mental health and mental toughness and believe they can coexist without compromising one another. However, they debate whether the term mental toughness can be salvaged from its negative connotations.

Therapists also emphasize the importance of both mental health and mental toughness in young people’s lives. They point to U.S. gymnast Simone Biles as an example of someone who knows when to pull back for mental health reasons but also possesses the mental toughness to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness.