Creating Struggle for Kids

A kid puts his head on the table on top of books in frustration.A mom of three, I know each kid is different and unique, even when two have identical DNA. As our children have gotten older, we have adjusted our parenting choices to better meet each child’s needs. For one of our kiddos, one of our most significant changes has been intentionally creating struggle. Practicing struggle is a life-changing skill for kids and one that will impact the rest of their lives.

When Life Is Mostly Easy

Some kids seem to be extra lucky. They’re naturally good at sports, can catch on to new concepts quickly, and generally have the traits that make it easier for them to navigate early life successfully. We have one of those kids. He’s intelligent, athletic, and charismatic. As a result, most things in life came easily to him – lucky, eh?

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However, even at a young age, we noticed that he was more likely than his brothers or other kids his age to cry or get frustrated easily. We thought he would grow out of it, but it got worse as he got older — worse enough that we reached out to our favorite childhood play therapist for help.

After meeting with our kiddo, she quickly identified that he is bright, intelligent, and fun but he avoids struggle. With that simple statement, so many light bulbs went off in our heads — YES. He DOES avoid struggle. And when he can’t, he doesn’t handle it well.

No Struggle, No Resilience

A kid who succeeded at most things, ours had gotten used to things being simple. He was repeatedly praised for his aptitude and internalized everyone’s expectations that he be close to perfect. Suddenly, the idea of not being perfect created incredible anxiety, making him avoid those situations more and more.

The result: He needed to learn how to handle situations where he wasn’t immediately successful. 

The Benefits of Struggle

Struggle is uncomfortable for everyone, and as parents, it’s easy to want to help our children avoid any discomfort. However, that’s not always in the best interests of our kids. When we struggle, we build problem-solving skills, learn how to manage emotions, discover self-regulation, and generally grow mentally and emotionally.

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In fact, you could go as far as saying struggle (enough, but not too much) is ESSENTIAL to childhood development and future success.

A kid struggles with math homework and look at a piece of paper and a calculator.Intentionally Creating Struggle

We have always worked to hold our children to expectations in line with their abilities and give them a variety of experiences. Knowing our kiddo is one of the oldest in his class, we routinely put him on sports teams where he would be the youngest and did our best to give him opportunities to work hard. But what we were doing wasn’t enough.

Our therapist helped us realize that school is where he spends most of his time and would play the biggest factor in opportunities for growth. With this in mind, we approached the new school year by requesting that he be given work more aligned with his abilities, including attending math lessons with the grade above him.

We also started giving him more responsibility around the house and generally raised our expectations for his behavior and performance. Hardest for us as parents, we also ensured he had the space to fail.

The Payoff

Already, we have seen some of the fruits of our labor. There is more emotional regulation (although still a fair amount of crying), a new confidence that is less easily shaken, and a higher sense of security that it’s okay if he isn’t the best. Watching him grow and change due to new challenges has pushed us to reconsider the paths we are setting for our other children and ourselves.

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Another recommendation was to have more honest conversations about our struggles. As a family, we have started to talk more openly about what each of us is finding particularly hard on any given day. This has helped us better support one another in meeting new goals and commiserating when things don’t work out as well as hoped.

So far, creating struggle for one kid has led to significant growth for us all, and I can’t wait to see what new challenges life has in store for us next.

Emily Harrison
Although born in Austin, Emily grew up on the Eastside of Fort Worth. After marrying her high school sweetheart, and following the military's whims for a few years, the lovebirds wound up back in the Fort, with their three children in tow. Currently, Emily shares her love of books and writing with both her children and her middle school students. On the weekends, you'll find her outside running local streets and trails, as well as being her kids' biggest fan at whatever sport may be in season.