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. 

16 Comments

Moses

These ideas are helpful. My 13 yr. old is fearful and am hopeful to implement these ideas to help him.

Reply
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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