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A young teenage girl wearing a trilby hat sits on the steps leading up to a yellow front door

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Guide

How to support kids to be brave

The desire to protect kids from uncomfortable situations is natural. But they need your help to grow into the unknown

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Sarah Rose Cavanagh

is a psychologist, professor and senior associate director for teaching and learning at Simmons University in Boston, US. She researches the interplay of emotion, motivation and learning, and is the author of several books, including Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge (2023), Hivemind (2019), and The Spark of Learning (2016).

Edited by Matt Huston

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Need to know

One evening, after a frantic day of family vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard – beaches, ice-cream shops, arcades – my cousin Elizabeth and I escaped to a small, dark bar, soothed by the cool whir of air conditioning and the quiet clink of ice in our glasses. We had sent off my two preteens into town with $30 each and the charge to have fun. Romping through the cosy downtown of Oak Bluffs at night was among the favourite memories of my and Elizabeth’s own childhood summers. In contrast, my kids were a bit more apprehensive about being out on their own.

Three sips into our drinks, I received a text. The preteens, apparently still more pre than teen, had immediately blown all their money at the toy shop and wanted to be taken back to the vacation rental. I sighed, and thought. Then I texted them the address of our vacation house and proposed that they find their way back on their own. It would not be a hazardous journey – just a few blocks away in a neighbourhood full of gingerbread houses and families spilling out on to their warmly lit porches. But I believed that it would be a growth experience for them to navigate the route on their phones (a cognitive challenge), while alone at night (an emotional challenge), and then explain to my waiting uncle why they’d returned on their own (both shy, they would find this a social challenge).

Our natural impulse as caregivers is to protect children from danger and harm, no matter the cost. This primal urge is a good fit for the challenges of parenting young children, who seem to enjoy routinely flinging themselves into harm’s way. But during adolescence and beyond, so often this impulse is the wrong one. To truly grow, our young people need to enter uncertain situations and learn that they have the internal resources to cope with them. We adults need to step back into the wings and let them test their mettle against the world.

If you are a parent, caregiver or educator, you may often find yourself wondering when it is better to remove an obstacle for the young person in your care, and when it is better instead to step back and let them venture forth on their own – or even give them an encouraging nudge to take on a challenge or face their fears. Perhaps your child is mid-adolescence and all their friends are starting driver’s ed, but every time you bring it up they get nervous and change the subject. Or your equine-loving preteen is considering a summer camp where she’d gallop the day away, but she’s scared to be away from home for the first time. Maybe you are a teacher reading about escalating rates of student anxiety and wondering whether you should do away with those formidable class presentations.

In this Guide, I’ll explain why it’s so critical to help young people rise and meet challenges that they find somewhat intimidating – and I’ll share some advice on how to do that safely and effectively. This advice is based on my experiences as a parent, my education as a psychologist who studies the interactions between learning and emotion, my research for a book on how adults should respond to the youth mental health crisis, and my conversations with educators who are grappling with these issues.

I’ve written the Guide primarily for parents and other adults in caregiving roles, though many of the same principles are useful to educators. You might find it helpful if you’re already convinced that your young person needs to be encouraged to face challenging situations, and you want some tips on how to help. But you might also find it useful if you’re reluctant to give them that gentle push. The examples and strategies will mainly focus on the years spanning the beginning of adolescence to the transition to college or the workforce (approximately age 10 to age 19).

An important note: this Guide is not aimed at parents whose children are experiencing chronic, intense levels of anxiety, worry or depression. For these young people, the best path forward is to seek professional help directly. In addition, as with all things parenting, how you implement the suggestions should be tuned to your particular child and their strengths, challenges and unique ways of experiencing the world.

Adolescence is a critical time for building self-efficacy

To successfully transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, young people need to willingly confront experiences they’ve never had to navigate before, and ideally emerge from these experiences with an increased sense of competence. Psychological development is essentially a staircase of such experiences across domains – social, emotional, intellectual, moral, romantic. The first night away from home, and the realisation that one can manage quite fine outside of the parental orbit. The first job, showing up for barista training and navigating the fast pace, the angry customers, and the scalding coffee machines. The first time travelling alone, checking that you have the right plane ticket and identification, and successfully making it through the gauntlet of security officers shouting directions.

In fact, much like toddlerhood is a ‘critical period’ in human development in which key social, emotional and cognitive abilities are established (when things go well), adolescence may work in a similar way. Independent living skills, emotion regulation, the development of friendships and romantic partnerships, and finding academic or employment paths are all important areas of growth during this stage of life. Adults have a role to play in encouraging young people to take on challenges that are the right level of difficulty, and at the right time – both giving a gentle nudge to the reluctant youth and helping our more spirited ones ease into independence rather than catapulting themselves into challenges for which they’re not quite ready.

When young people instead avoid or withdraw from challenges and fears, that can strengthen anxiety and pose problems for healthy development. Anxiety arises when a person senses that they lack the resources to deal with a potential threat. Sometimes, that perception is correct but, often, anxiety appears in situations where there is no real danger, or when one does in fact have the resources to cope. When a young person does have what’s required to deal with a challenging situation, the best way forward is often to face it, so that they can feel more capable the next time they encounter it. This development of a feeling of competence is called self-efficacy.

Human beings learn self-efficacy by acting on our worlds, and seeing the world meaningfully respond. In chemistry class, a student raises her hand and answers a question correctly, sees that no one flames her and she doesn’t embarrass herself, and the next week feels confident enough to contribute a longer and more nuanced opinion in another class. A teen is dropped off at a restaurant with his friend and a new debit card, has to navigate the payment and tip calculation, and the next week feels more confident walking to the convenience store alone for some school supplies and snacks. There are countless other examples across different domains.

Higher self-efficacy has been associated with lower use of substances like alcohol and drugs, as well as higher academic success, optimism and wellbeing. Not a bad list! Self-efficacy can generalise across different situations; it helps build a strong core of resilience and confidence. But exposing young people to challenges they aren’t ready for won’t help them develop it. What’s required are manageable challenges and successes that build on each other. And that’s where you can help.

What to do

Consider how much encouragement your young person needs

How do you tell when a tentative young person needs a bit of a push, and when to back off? Or when you have a more daring child who is eager to take on challenges, but it may be best for them to proceed a little more cautiously? Like so much of parenting, it is a bit of a dance, and requires a lot of communication and adjustment over time.

Pay attention to when your child speaks longingly of an activity or challenge that they don’t think they can face – that is both a sign they might need some encouragement and a tell that this is an area of value for them. Watch for signs that your child is withdrawing, spending long periods of time alone, or seems bored in their studies, as these may be other signals that they need more challenge. Alternatively, if your young person is sleeping too little, starts relying too much on caffeine or seems on edge all the time, they may have bitten off more than they can chew, and a conversation about establishing more of a balance may be in order.

Each young person may have individual signs that they’re under- or overwhelmed. I know when my own child is at that right level of challenged (but not overwhelmed) when she’s singing a lot – if I regularly hear her rich alto rising from the floorboards, all is well. If her voice goes silent for weeks at a time, that’s one possible sign that I should ask about how things are going. Ask lots of questions, and listen when your adolescent answers. Tune your feedback to them.

Even if your child does not show signs of requiring encouragement to adjust the number or intensity of their challenges either up or down, you can still play a valuable role in talking with them about how to recognise and manage suitable challenges – as we’ll discuss in the next steps.

Help them to identify appropriate challenges

Ideally, adolescents should choose their own challenges, and these should align with their interests and values. Forcing a clumsy preteen into a ballet class or signing up a school-reluctant teen for a two-week academic intensive over the summer is likely to backfire. Insisting that a young person focus mainly on the challenges that you think are important for them is just another form of overparenting.

Instead, have an open conversation about your child’s interests, and any situations that evoke a combination of fascination and nervousness. Ask them to imagine a version of their future self – what skills would they like to have? What would they like to have mastered? What experiences would need to be under their belt? Many of us have a tendency toward idealism about the future, and a natural way to set goals for ourselves is to attempt to resolve the discrepancy between our current, amorphous selves and these ideal future versions. Emphasise choice throughout. For instance, if you and your child both agree that it would be great for them to attend a sleepaway summer camp, you could let them choose whether it is nature-based, involves performing arts, or has a different focus. Ask what skills they’re most interested in building.

Not all useful challenges are large, time-intensive or require a lot of thought – they may just emerge naturally, in the moment. Encourage your young person to be on the lookout for micro-challenges: these might include an opportunity to raise their hand in class, a moment when they might engage in a little chit-chat with the student next to them in line for lunch, or a time in gym class when they might volunteer to try an activity first. These little challenges, repeated over time, can build self-efficacy as much as fewer, bigger challenges.

When helping a young person select challenges, also consider whether there could be a social element involved. For most adolescents, peer relationships are paramount. Can a type of challenge they’ve chosen involve friends, siblings or cousins around their age, or other peers? If so, they may be more motivated to take on the challenge and feel that they have a secure base from which to start.

The above recommendations align with self-determination theory, which highlights three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. The process of taking on challenges can help young people fulfil these needs. You can encourage your child to be self-directed, to autonomously set a path related to their goals, and to take the first (and then the second, and then the third) step down that path. As they take on manageable challenges, they can build a sense of competence, learning that they are an instrument of effective change in the world and that their skills can grow over time. And taking on these challenges within a supportive social environment, involving peers when possible, can reinforce a sense of relatedness to others.

Model ways of embracing challenges

To help a young person recognise the benefits of facing fears and taking on challenges, demonstrate a healthy embrace of challenges yourself – and be open about when and how you do so. For example: I sometimes tell my own adolescent when I’m particularly nervous about how a speaking engagement is going to go, and then explain why I’m doing it anyway, as well as the strategies I’m using to mitigate the anxiety and maximise the chances of a positive outcome. I might also share with her when I’m dreading some social or work-related confrontation – and describe how I’m intentionally not avoiding the conversation because I know that, in the long run, it will make everyone’s lives easier if we talk things out.

You can also share stories of times when you faced your fears and emerged from the situation stronger for it. For instance, with the college students I teach, I share my own transition from someone who was terrified to speak in class to someone who does public speaking for a living (crediting women’s studies professors who created safe spaces for me to practise). It is productive for your young person to know that you, too, have fears and impulses to withdraw or avoid, and that you value facing challenging situations anyway, and usually benefit from doing so.

Show how they can make a challenge more manageable

If a young person is apprehensive about taking on a particular challenge they’re interested in, talk through their fears with them and see if the challenge can be organised into more manageable chunks. For instance, let’s say a shy adolescent has the idea of starting a student literary magazine at their high school, but they are daunted by the size of the challenge and the social interactions it would require. You can help them break it down into smaller steps. They might start with a short but cordial email to their favourite English teacher, to ask if the teacher would be interested in being a faculty sponsor. From there, they could talk to a few like-minded friends about getting involved, and ask the more extraverted ones to drum up interest. Together, you can think up ways in which such a project could become a reality, step by step.

If even that step-wise approach seems intimidating, one technique that could help your adolescent get started is called setting a ‘minimal viable product’ (MVP) goal. Let’s say the challenge is applying for a part-time job. The idea of talking to strangers, filling out applications and going through the interview process has them frozen in place, unable to get started. Brainstorming together, you might agree on a minimally viable product such as ‘Write down four local places that might hire people my age.’ Doable, right? An MVP takes the pressure off and makes it easier to get started. They’re likely to go further than simply writing down four places – maybe they’ll generate an even longer list or do some online searching to learn about application processes. But the MVP gets the ball rolling.

Remind them of their strengths and past successes

In many families, there are stories that get told over and over again, that come up during holidays and vacations, and that almost any family member can recite. The story about the time your mother lost her wedding ring in the lasagna and served it anyway. Or the Halloween when your brother wore a Sylvester the Cat costume with a Strawberry Shortcake mask and told everyone he was an alligator. I once observed a class in which students were asked to unpack the meanings of their family stories, and to consider why a particular story is told repeatedly. Is it emphasising someone’s foolishness, care, intelligence, bravery? How is the family reaffirming this person’s role in the collective?

Examine your own family stories about your adolescent and the messages they send. Tell stories that underline their strengths and capabilities, not their weaknesses. Perhaps your teen desperately wants to try out for the spring musical but frets that they will falter once on stage. You could remind them of their deep love of singing, and of the time when they were seven and they enthusiastically leapt on stage to sing ‘We Will Rock You’ at your cousin’s wedding. Maybe your 8th-grader is trying to decide whether to take an honours engineering class, and you tell the story of the time they discovered a broken-down bicycle in their grandfather’s garage and immediately started fixing it. And if your child is considering whether to join the track team but is worried about the time commitment, you might remind them of an autumn when they spent every Saturday morning painting a mural at school.

If you can’t think of a specific story that emphasises the strengths relevant to the challenge your young person is considering taking on, simply share how you see them enact these strengths in their daily lives. You could tell a sophomore going out for the swim team how you have always noticed their tenacity and their love of physical activity. Or tell a 6th-grader considering a poetry contest how much they have always impressed you with their vocabulary and their analogies.

Consider possible positive and negative outcomes together

In some cases, a young person’s anxiety about a challenge may seem out of proportion to the risk involved. Perhaps they are worried about an unlikely, worst-case scenario. Walking through the range of possible outcomes and weighing the relative likelihood of each could help them realise that the risk is worth taking.

For example, say you have a preteen who’s attending a new school and is terrified about finding someone to sit with at lunch. You suggest that they could identify someone who looks friendly and has an empty seat next to them, and then ask if it’s OK to sit there. Based on experience, I suspect that your child might look at you as if you’ve just suggested they gnaw off their own limb. If they do, you could gently walk them through the possible outcomes, thinking through how likely those are and what the consequences might be. The most likely outcome is probably that the other student would shrug and say: ‘Sure.’ The student might be even more welcoming than that. Or, they might instead say something like: ‘No, my friend is coming to sit here.’ That would be disappointing and perhaps a bit embarrassing – but still, you could suggest, it’s a moment from which your child would recover.

Is it possible that the other student would make a scene, or make fun of your child? Yes, it’s possible. But in the process of considering the various possible outcomes, your child would hopefully see that the worst possibility is fairly unlikely.

The same principle could apply to more intimidating challenges – such as asking a long-time crush out on a date, running for class president, or considering a university that’s far from home. At each stage, you can help your adolescent think through the best- and worst-case scenarios, and help them recognise when the worst-case scenarios are both unlikely and survivable.

Remind them that no one begins every new experience or endeavour with perfect success. The entire process of learning is one of fits and starts, of falling down and getting up, of making mistakes and learning from them. Emphasise the importance of effort and persistence (not just natural ability) in determining success.

Respond to setbacks or disappointments with compassion

Following a significant challenge, your young person may need extra support and compassion. Try to listen actively to what they have to say, without judgment. Avoid trying to immediately reframe the situation or look on the bright side when your adolescent is very upset. Instead, use phrases like ‘That sounds really hard’ or ‘I can understand why that would upset you.’

Children often look to adults for information about how they should feel when things don’t go their way. Can you recall any times when your child was a toddler and fell off a swing or skidded to their knees, and then immediately darted their gaze to your face? If you expressed a great deal of concern or worry, tears likely followed. But if you said ‘Oopsie!’ and gave them a smile, they probably got back on their feet and continued their play. A similar principle applies to challenges faced by older children. Don’t diminish their feelings if they are upset. But do remain calm, and don’t immediately shift into soothing behaviour. Nod, listen carefully, and then use some phrases like the ones above.

Following a setback, we all need some time to lick our wounds. Give it a few days, then broach the conversation again and reaffirm that there will be future opportunities that may turn out better than the current one. If their long-term crush turned them down, you can remind them that time is on their side, and the most likely scenario is that they’ll find love again. If they lost their campaign for class president, you might share how, in your experience, there are many different opportunities to be a leader as you grow up – they’ll get theirs!

Provide positive reinforcement, including for early wins

Above, I suggested helping a young person break down a challenge into smaller steps. This reflects a lesson from goal-setting research that one of the best ways to approach long-term goals is to break them into reasonable short-term ones. An advantage of this approach is that it makes it possible to reward yourself for each step, which encourages continued goal-pursuit. An adolescent who is dreading a big class presentation might use the MVP method to start crafting materials for the presentation, then move on to the step of practising in front of you and their siblings, and then maybe go through it with a few of their close friends after school. Each step could involve some positive reinforcement.

So, as your adolescent progresses through key steps toward meeting a challenge, reward those steps once they are completed. It doesn’t have to be elaborate: words of praise, ice cream or a trip to the movies all work. Smaller rewards suffice for smaller steps; as your child reaches the eventual outcome, that is worth truly celebrating.

After your child has selected a challenge and succeeded at it, add it to the roster of family stories. That time they were anxious about attending a student conference away from home, but faced their fears and had a great experience. The day they asked to sit with a group of kids at lunch and were rebuffed, turned away with tears in their eyes, and then saw another first-year patting the seat next to her – their future best friend. The time when they were the only one to raise their hand as the drama club advisor asked for a student leader, and they spent the next two years promoting the performing arts at their school. These shared memories of daring and growing can help provide the encouragement a young person needs to continue – step by step and challenge by challenge – to develop into the flourishing adult they will be one day.

Key points – How to support kids to be brave

  1. Adolescence is a critical time for building self-efficacy. Young people need to face challenges and learn that they have the internal resources to deal with them. Adults can provide guidance as they do this.
  2. Consider how much encouragement your young person needs. Look out for signs of a lack of challenge (eg, seeming bored or withdrawn) and curiosity about new challenges; or, signs that they are overwhelmed by what they are taking on.
  3. Help them to identify appropriate challenges. Ask about their interests and aspirations, and talk with them about goals or activities that align with those. But remind them that growth can also come from everyday situations in which they take small risks.
  4. Model ways of embracing challenges. Demonstrate a healthy embrace of challenging situations yourself, and explain how and why you go about facing these situations.
  5. Show how they can make a challenge more manageable. Talk with them about breaking a daunting goal into smaller steps. Suggest starting with a ‘minimally viable product’ (MVP) to help them get moving.
  6. Remind them of their strengths and past successes. Tell and retell stories that underscore an adolescent’s capabilities, and show how these connect to challenges they face now.
  7. Consider possible positive and negative outcomes together. Looking at different potential outcomes of a challenging situation – ideal, worst-case, most likely – can help an adolescent see when a feared result is both unlikely and survivable.
  8. Respond to setbacks or disappointments with compassion. Listen to what they have to say and signal that you understand. After a bit of time has passed, help them look toward more positive future possibilities.
  9. Provide positive reinforcement, including for early wins. Reward significant steps toward meeting a challenge. After a goal has been achieved, make it a point to talk about it going forward.

Links & books

These ideas are grounded in research for my recent book Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge (2023). You can also find more of these ideas in essays I’ve written and podcast interviews I’ve given.

If you are looking for parenting advice from a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents, there is no one better than Lisa Damour, whose website features articles, workshops and more. She is the author of numerous books, most recently her book The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents (2023), and she hosts Ask Lisa, a wonderful parenting advice podcast with Reena Ninan.

The parenting author Jessica Lahey compellingly lays out the argument that developing self-efficacy is a key protective factor in the prevention of adolescent and young adult substance abuse in her book The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence (2021).

This Guide, and the books above, largely assume that the reader is a caring parent or educator looking to support the young people in their care as best they can. Far too many youth are growing up without such supportive mentors – and far, far too many are growing up in situations of active abuse, neglect, poverty and discrimination. The scholar and activist Dena Simmons writes, speaks and acts to support young people with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), especially youth of colour with ACEs. See her website for examples of her writing and speaking. If you are looking for an educator’s perspective on how to support students who have experienced trauma, and how to do so from an equity lens, Alex Shevrin Venet’s book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (2021) has influenced much of my own thinking and writing.

Finally, if you are hoping to encourage youth in your care to challenge themselves academically, the psychologists Regan A Gurung and John Dunlosky provide an evidence-based, written-for-students guide to excellent study strategies in their book Study Like a Champ: The Psychology-Based Guide to ‘Grade A’ Study Habits (2023). I picked up copies for both of the young people in this Guide’s leading anecdote.