Building Courage in Kids – How to Teach Kids to Be Brave

Building Courage in Kids

Kids and teens are growing up in a world that is becoming increasingly competitive and comparative. It is easy to for them – for any of us – to believe that the ones who have found success or happiness are better than, stronger than, smarter than, or privy to something magical – certain strengths or qualities that are reserved for the lucky few. The truth is that none of us are born with the ‘success’ gene or the ‘happiness gene’. There are many things that lead to success and happiness, but one of the most powerful of these is courage. 

Behind so many brilliant successes are failures, rejections, and unexpected turns. Often many. Without exception, there is also courage. Mountains of courage. Courage to keep going, to find a different way, and of course the courage to try in the first place. 

Teaching Kids to Be Brave: Explaining What Courage Is.

For kids and teens, one of the most important things for them to know is that courage doesn’t always feel like courage. From the outside, courage often looks impressive and powerful and self-assured. Sometimes it might look reckless or thrilling. From the inside though, it can feel frightening and unpredictable. It can feel like anxiety, or fear, or rolling self-doubt. Courage can be a trickster like that – it often looks different from the outside to the way you would expect it to feel on the inside. This is because courage and fear always exist together. It can’t be any other way. If there is no fear, there is no need for courage. 

Courage isn’t about something magical that happens inside us to make us ‘not scared’. It’s about something magical that happens inside us to make us push through fear, self-doubt, anxiety, and do the things that feel hard or risky or frightening. Sometimes, courage only has to happen for seconds at a time – just long enough to be brave enough. 

There’s something else that kids need to know about courage – you don’t always see the effects of it straight away. Courage might mean being kind to the new kid in class, trying something new, speaking up for something they believe in. Often, these things don’t come with fireworks or applause. In fact, they rarely do. The differences they make can take time to reveal, but when actions are driven by courage, the differences those actions make will always be there, gently taking shape and changing their very important corners of the world in some way. 

How to Build Courage in Kids. 

We all want to feel safe. It’s so smooth and unsplintered and unlikely to scrape you or embarrass you or leave you with bruises. Sometimes, ‘safe and certain’ might be the perfect place for our kids to be, but so much growth and the things that will enrich them will happen when they let go of the handrail, even if just for seconds at a time. Here are some ways to nurture their brave:

  1. Speak of their brave as though they’re already there. 

    Kids and teens step up to expectations or down to them. Speak to the courage that is coming to life inside them, as though they are already there. ‘I know how brave you are.’ ‘I love that you make hard decisions sometimes, even when it would be easier to do the other thing.’ ‘You might not feel brave, but I know what it means to you to be doing this. Trust me – you are one of the bravest people I know.’

  2. Give permission for imperfection. 

    Failure and rejection are often a sign that you’ve done something brave. Every experience gives new information and new wisdom that wouldn’t have been there before. It’s why only the brave ones get there in the end – they have the knowledge, wisdom, and experience that can often only be found when you land badly – sometimes more than once. Give them space for imperfection – it’s a growth staple.

  3. You won’t always feel ready. That’s why it’s brave.

    Let them know that it’s okay to hang on while they’re getting comfortable – while they’re working on a plan, fanning the brave spark inside them (and it’s always inside them), but then there will be a time to let go. When this time comes, it won’t always feel like readiness or certainty. That’s what makes it brave. And a little bit magical.

  4. Try something new.

    Encourage them to do activities that push them to the edges of their physical or emotional selves – drama, sport, music. Anything that will help to nurture the truth to life that they are strong, powerful, that they can cope, and that they are not as fragile as they might feel sometimes will help to nurture their brave hearts.

  5. Be the example.

    Everything you do is gold in their eyes. Talk to them about the times you feel nervous, or the times you’ve said ‘no’ or ‘yes’, when everyone else was moving in the opposite direction. Talk to them about the times you’ve pushed through fear, exhaustion, sadness, anger, to do the thing that was right for you. Talk about your risky ideas, the times you thought differently, did differently, and the times you felt small but did something big. Let them feel that the brave in you, is in them too. 


  6. Give them space for courage of thought. 

    Courage isn’t only about pushing against their own edges. Sometimes it’s about pushing against the friends who might steer them off track, the limiting expectations of others, the media, the majority, the world. Too many times, creative, change-making, beautifully open minds have been shut down in the name of compliance. There is nothing wrong with questioning – it opens hearts, minds, and mouths – what’s important is that the questioning is done respectfully. One of the reasons the world is capable of great things is because young minds who are brave enough to challenge the way things are and to want something better grow into adults minds who make it happen. Ask for their opinions and let them know they can disagree with yours. Some of the world’s very ideas have often started with small ideas that made no sense at all at the time.

  7. And when the motive is brave but the behaviour is, let’s say, ‘unadorable’. 

    Sometimes brave behaviour gets shadowed by behaviour that is a little scuffed. When this happens, support the brave voice or intent, but redirect the behaviour. ‘I love that you speak up for what you feel is right. It takes guts to do that. We won’t get anywhere though if you keep shouting.’

  8. Give space for their intuition to flourish – and teach them how to use it.

    Intuition is not magic and it’s not hocus pocus. It’s the lifetime of memories, experiences, and learnings that sit somewhere in all of us, just outside of our awareness. Gut feelings and heart whispers all come from tapping into this pool of hidden wisdom. Scientists in Switzerland have found the physical basis of ‘gut feelings’. The innate fear response, or the feeling that something isn’t right, is heavily influenced by messages sent along the vagus nerve from the stomach to the brain. The vagus nerve is the longest of twelve pairs of nerves that leave the brain. It sends messages from the belly to the brain, touching the heart along the way. When the vagus nerve is cut, the loss of signals from the belly changes the production of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. (Neurotransmitters help to transmit messages between brain cells. Everything we do depends on these messages flowing properly.) The hard part – and the part that can take a lot of courage – is acting on gut feelings or intuition and doing what feels right, regardless of the noise that tells us to do otherwise. Encourage them to take notice of when something feels right or wrong for them. Sometimes this means giving them permission to let go of needing to justify or explain the reason they feel the way they do. ‘When you are still and quiet, what does your heart tell you?’ ‘Do you have a feeling about what you should do? Sometimes those feelings come from the part of you that knows what’s best. Taking notice of them can be really valuable.’

  9. And then there’s self-talk. Sneaky, sidelining self-talk.

    Self-talk is one of the biggest ways we stop ourselves from venturing outside of our limits. Self-talk can be automatic and barely noticeable, but so limiting. They are the ‘can’ts’, ‘shoulds’ ‘shouldn’ts‘, and ‘what-ifs’. They can be persuasive little ponies that put courage in a box for a while. Let your kiddos know that however scared they might feel, or whatever they might be telling themselves about how much they ‘can’t’, they will always be braver than they think they are. Brave can be a thought, a feeling, or an action. They can do brave even if you don’t think it or feel it. If they don’t feel brave enough or believe they are brave enough, they just have to act as though they are. Their bodies and their brains won’t know the difference. Brave is brave, however much fear and self-doubt is behind it.  

  10. It’s never too late to change … anything.

    Let them know that it’s never too late to change direction, change friends, or change their mind. It’s so easy for courage to turn cold when a decision or choice feels final. All experiences bring new wisdom, and if that new wisdom means the decision stops feeling right, that’s okay. There will a plan B, a back door, a way out or a way back up. But first comes the brave decision to start.

  11. The outcome doesn’t matter as much as the process.

    When they feel the need to play it safe, they are focusing on the ending, or the need to avoid failure. Whenever you can, encourage them to shift their focus to the process – the decisions they make, the actions they take, and the courage that drives all of it. Many kids (and adults) are held back from brave behaviour because of the fear of failure, but what if the goal is courage. It’s always important to be considered when being brave – sometimes brave decisions and silly ones can look the same – but if the process has been thought about and the consequences considered, let the courage to have a go be more important than any outcome. They will always get over a disappointment, but any time they take the opportunity to be brave, they are strengthening a quality that will strengthen and lift them from the inside out. 

  12. Encourage their sense of adventure. 

    And let them see yours. It is in the adventure that we learn new ways of being, thinking and doing. Whether it’s taking a different turn, trying a different food, going something they’ve never been before, it’s all part of discovering their own capacity to cope with unpredictability and their own resourcefulness – and that is the fuel of the brave.

  13. Let them celebrate their courage regularly.

    Introduce a weekly family ritual – maybe around the dinner table – where everyone shares something brave they did this week. This is an opportunity to show them that courage comes in many different shapes and sizes and that even adults struggle with being brave sometimes. It’s a way to prime them for taking risks and doing things that they might not otherwise do – even if it’s just to be able to tell you about it.

  14. Brave is about doing what’s right for them.

    Sometimes courage is about doing the scary thing, and sometimes it’s about doing the right thing. Let’s say a bunch of friends is going to watch a scary movie. It’s easy for kids to think the brave thing is watching the movie, but if it doesn’t feel right to be watching it, the brave thing is actually saying ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ to something that doesn’t feel right is one of the bravest things we humans can do. There are three clues that can help them wade through the noise and find the right thing to do:

• Will it break an important rule or is it against the law?

•  Will it hurt someone?

•  Does it feel right for you?

Deciding whether something is right or wrong is the first step. The next part – which is the tricky part – is finding a safe out. It’s not always easy saying ‘no’, which is why this is where courage happens. Give them some options to try. These might involve leaving, suggesting something else to do instead, blame a parent (my mum/dad said I couldn’t. There’s no way I’m getting myself into trouble today. Nup’), make a joke (‘out of all the ways to get grounded, that’s not a way that’s worth the trouble’).

And finally …

They might also believe that courage comes in the way of grand, big gestures, superheroic feats, or actions of dragon slayers. The truth is, our children are slaying their own dragons, every day. They’re heroes, every one of them. The key is helping them realise it so they can use it to push through their edges when they feel small, scared, confused, or unseen. Because one of the most important parts of being brave is knowing that somewhere inside of you, ‘brave’ will be there when you need it, whether you feel it or not. 

15 Comments

Muhammad

An informative article. Thank you writers and publishers. Definitely I’ll try these guidelines for my kids.

Reply
Nicole

I do not have children, but hope to some day. I love the way you explain this for all ages.

To be perfectly honest, simplicity is the best way for me to understand things. I know this is for children, but I am benefiting from these articles as no one taught me this when I was a child. Fear was present and a driving force in our fam.
My inner child thanks you immensely!
<3, Nicole

Reply
Doing Good Together™

So very true: “The truth is, our children are slaying their own dragons, every day. They’re heroes, every one of them. ” Thank you for offering this reminder and these tips. We addressed this topic in a newsletter on “Raising Courage” and agree with many of the ideas you suggest.

Reply
Sandra

Thank you for helping me recognise bravery in my little grandsons! They face their fears every day in kindy and year one at school. I will acknowledge their efforts.

Reply
Rosa

As a mother, a future wife, a daughter… a friend, I know how important it is to be supportive to those whom you love and care about. I will use this information to encourage my 15 year and any person that needs it… thank you for your article ?

Reply
Jo

Loved this – v helpful for my kinder #1 son who is still feeling anxious when I leave him at school. Some great tips thank you x 🙂

Reply
InésPintos-Lopez

Beautiful advise! A loving way of guiding our kids to courage and freedom…. knowing that we can make a friend of fear!

Reply

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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