McNerney: Telling Your Kids to ‘Toughen Up’ Doesn’t Work

By Neil McNerney

Imagine this scenario: You are with your child at a neighborhood cookout, enjoying the weather and the company of friends, when suddenly your child is running by and face-plants right on the pavement, skinning his knee a bit. His first reaction is surprise, then he looks up at you, pauses a moment, and the waterworks begin.

If you have a child that is walking age or older, you have been in this scenario; probably a few dozen times. This is a universal parenting situation, and parents tend to have two different responses: Tell him it’s no big deal and try to ignore it, or give them lots of TLC until he feels better.

You can probably tell by the title of this column which option I am going to suggest you choose. But before we get into that, let’s consider why we often choose the “toughen up” approach.

We know that life is hard, and those who are more resilient tend to be happier and perform better in life. Our goal is to try to encourage resilience by not making a big deal over every scrape and bruise. When we say: “You’re fine. It’s just a little bruise,” our hope is that our child will also say that to himself, get up, and start playing again. Our worry is that if we coddle our children too much, they will become weak and unable to deal with the difficulties of life.

But here is the issue: It doesn’t work. Most of the time, when we tell our kids to toughen up, it tends to increase the crying instead of decreasing it. Why? Because it’s all about the relationship.

When our kids get hurt, they immediately look around for their parents. They do this because they are dealing with a situation that is causing some fear and/or anxiety. They are looking for support and assurance. Who do they seek for that assurance? Their parents, of course. If we respond with open arms and affection, and possibly kissing their boo boo (probably the worst thing we could do for a scrape!), they are then reassured and can continue playing. If, instead, we ignore it or tell them “You’re fine,” then they don’t feel like we understand their pain, fear or anxiety. Their response to this is often increased crying, whining and complaining. This makes us more frustrated and irritated, and our kids see this, which then increases even more their crying and whining.

There is a longer-term consequence to this, as well. Who do we want our children to go to when they are afraid, hurt or anxious? Us, of course. But what if the message they have received is that Mom and Dad are just going to annoyed if I tell them I’m hurt or worried? The possible outcome might be that the child stops sharing things with his parents.

There have been no studies that links parental reassurance to raising wimpy kids. The connection just isn’t there. By taking the few moments to calmly reassure, you give your child a chance to recover.

There is however the right way and wrong way to reassure. Our kids need our calm reassurance. Emphasis should be on “calm.” If we match our kid’s reaction, it will usually make things worse.

I remember, when I was about 10 years old, watching my friend fall off her fence as she was trying to use it as a balance beam. She, of course started yelling that her arm was broken. Her mother, hearing this from the kitchen, ran screaming into the back yard, eyes wide. When she saw her daughter laying on the ground with a clearly injured arm, she grabbed it and continued to scream. Fortunately, my mother also heard the commotion and came out, pried the mother’s grip from her daughter’s arm, and calmly ordered the mother to go get her purse as my mother would take them to the hospital. My friend’s mother caused even more alarm and commotion by freaking out.

Usually, all our kids need is some reassurance, a quick hug and a kiss. As they get older, their injuries are often more complicated. Instead of physical, their injuries might be more emotional, and stress related. Relationship troubles and school stress are often the injuries. We run the risk of marginalizing our children by minimizing these issues. Telling your teen that they are being over dramatic will never have the desired effect. I have yet to see a teen respond with: “You know, you are right. I am being over dramatic.” Although it is tempting to tell them to get over it; that it’s no big deal, it sends a difficult message to our children: Don’t share tough times with parents because they will just tell me to get over it.

So, take those few minutes to listen to the worries, let them know that their pain is real, and that you are there for a hug and a listening ear. Your children, and your relationship with them, will appreciate it.


Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.”

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