How to Raise Resilient Kids

Illustration of a boy with brown skin and black hair wearing a yellow tshirt with white flowers growing out the top of his head.

Author, educator and positive thinker, Kari Sutton, reckons our kids are in the midsts of a mental health epidemic. So, how can we raise resilient kids? Kari reckons the answer lies in the power of positivity, and raising a mentally fit generation. Here's how...

Tell us about yourself.

I started working as an early-childhood educator in the early ’90s, and within a decade, it was clear to me that kids didn’t seem very resilient. And not long into my career, I had some changes in my personal life that got me thinking a lot about the power of positivity.

My nephew, Mitchell, was born in 1994, and his mum passed away when he was about five-and-a-half years old. My brother fell apart, so my husband and I helped pick up that situation and started caring for Mitchell. We learnt a lot about how optimism can help a family navigate tough times, and I’ve also been involved with Camp Quality since about the age of sixteen. Camp Quality is for children with cancer. I’ve learnt a lot about life from those kids. That all led me to study with Martin Seligman, who taught positive psychology, because I wanted to teach children positive habits of the mind, not just the stuff they learn at school. School is excellent, but they don’t teach this stuff.

By 2010, I was working as a guidance counsellor and teacher and I noticed things weren’t improving among young people. I don’t believe we will see an improvement unless we teach kids positive mental habits. And that’s not just about mindfulness—mindfulness isn’t the magic silver bullet people think, particularly for tweens and teens. Insight and empathy play a role in mindfulness, and they’re controlled by the frontal and prefrontal cortices of the brain, and those parts of the brain are still developing at that age. Instead, we must equip kids with a variety of positive mental habits to improve their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Why did you write your book, Raising a Mentally Fit Generation? 

Because I saw a new mental health epidemic, not just here in Australia but worldwide, and I’m worried future generations will suffer if we don’t change things for children. I really believe teaching one generation of kids about positive mental habits can change the future when they become parents. Because when we’re stressed, anxious, tired or not feeling the best, we will revert to habitual patterns of behaviour, and generally, that’s the way we were parented. 

I don’t want parents to think they’re not getting it right; I just think that teaching positive skills like gratitude, hopefulness, optimism and how to be a good friend, and also teaching kids to understand their brain and think critically, will change the way they teach their own children.

What is mental fitness?

It’s the idea that we can teach positive mental strategies. If we can teach our kids good physical habits like eating fruit and vegetables and putting on sunscreen, we can also teach them healthy mental habits. To do that, parents must embody those traits and first ask themselves how they can be more optimistic. That might mean telling your kids, “You know what, when I get stressed out, I get disappointed or angry too,” and helping them to sit with uncomfortable feelings.

Can mental fitness help prevent mental health problems?

Yes. If we talk about mental health, people frequently jump to mental ill health. Mental health isn’t usually thought of in proactive ways, like how we think about exercising to protect our health. We can keep our brains and emotional wellbeing healthy if we know how to keep ourselves mentally fit.

Is mental fitness the same as emotional intelligence?

No. Emotional intelligence is part of mental fitness, but it’s not the same. We are emotionally intelligent beings and understand we have emotions, and we can manage them. We also understand how other people might feel if we do certain things that affect them. Emotional intelligence is about self-awareness, self-management, and awareness of others and social situations.

Emotionally intelligent children or young people will generally have more mental fitness than less emotionally intelligent people. That gets back to what  I mentioned about learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings like frustration.

The idea that everyone gets a prize these days is not helpful to children, and it exists because people don’t want to allow their children to feel upset or frustrated. But actually, we are holding our children in a safe pair of hands in our home environment—it’s the right place to teach them how to sit with discomfort and say, “I’m sorry you have to go through this, but life is not always rosy.”

Because many kids who self-harm and spiral into depression or suicide often don’t have the ability to find hope—it’s not the only reason—but scooping them up and protecting them can sometimes be the worst thing we can do. And I want to reinforce that it doesn’t mean telling kids to toughen up. It’s about guiding them and sitting with them in a safe place to learn about impermanence.

How does setting boundaries help kids develop mental fitness?

Children like boundaries and want to know where the rules are, especially young children. When we fail to set boundaries, they keep pushing limits to find them, or they take on the role of somebody who will set boundaries—a parental role of sorts.

Understanding what is and isn’t okay is part of developing mental fitness. When children don’t know what contains them, they become agitated, stressed and anxious, and they develop challenging behaviours because they’re looking for someone to say: “It’s okay. I’ve got you. I’m the adult, and I will protect you, and you’re not going to be doing these things. Instead, we will do X.” And if an adult doesn’t support and contain them, they don’t feel safe in that adult’s presence. We also need to advocate for boundaries for our children, not just set them. So, for example, if a relative insists on kissing or cuddling a kid who doesn’t want to be touched, you need to stand up for them.

How can we encourage kids to keep going in tough times?

First, the adult needs to acknowledge they’ve been through tough times too, and it feels awful. It’s about helping them develop a growth mindset—things can be difficult, but we can get better. Find a way to ask if the child learnt something or can obtain feedback—or maybe you just need to say, “Tell me more.” It’s also really important to keep communication lines open. If a child shares a concern with you, even if it’s very small, you need to take the time to acknowledge it and offer your support.

Why is optimism important, and how can it be taught?

Optimism gives us hope for the future. Carers need to be able to look at their child from a very young age and assess whether they’re naturally more pessimistic or optimistic. If they’re more pessimistic, efforts need to be made to change that. The younger you start this work, the easier it gets. But we also need to remember that optimism exists on a continuum and is context specific. We are all more optimistic if we’re not overtired and stressed.

What should we have in our mental toolkit?

Humour is a big one. The kids at Camp Quality can have some black humour, but it serves them well. I remember taking kids to Sea World, and another child at the theme park asked one of our kids why she didn’t have a leg. Without missing a beat, our girl turned around and said, “Whatever you do, don’t go swimming with the sharks.” Humour is a great strategy for dealing with life’s ups and downs. Our biggest drawcard is, however, our relationships with other people. Relationships determine the mental and emotional wellbeing of someone. We need to explicitly teach kids how to get along with other people and how to ignore negative mental chatter.

We also need to teach them to be critical of criticism. Sometimes criticism is constructive, but sometimes it’s just damaging, and the child needs to learn to leave some of it behind instead of thinking it’s absolutely true. Because there will be times when teachers or even parents say hurtful things, and children are like sponges—they take everything on without critical thought. If someone is yelling at a child or putting them down for the majority of the time, there will be significant lifelong consequences.

Tell us about the importance of self-talk.

We each have what I call an “itty-bitty shitty committee” sitting on our shoulder and telling us we can’t do things. And when I did my training with Seligman, he told me that he believed we could cut the rate of depression in half if we caught children when they started talking out loud about the negative voice in their head.

We need to teach them that their internal voice isn’t real. If we can catch them saying things like, “I’m not smart enough,” we can change things before they learn to hide that voice. Teach them that the voice in their head is a meanie, so they learn to challenge their negative thoughts. Because that thought pattern will be stored at the back of their brain, in the same place where we keep knowledge about riding a bike and other habitual responses. Instead, we want to teach kids to think, “Well, life doesn’t feel great right now, but I know it will get better, and I can do this.”

One of your chapters starts with this quote: “Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” How does that relate to mental fitness and how to raise resilient kids?

If you want to get a child engaged in learning, you play to their strengths and find something they’re really good at.

Researchers investigated management techniques within organisations and proved strength-based personal appraisals have better outcomes because, as humans, we love being recognised for what we’re good at. And, when that happens, we go above and beyond.

If you’re looking at that idea through the angle of mental fitness, it’s about developing mental skills based on what a child is already good at. If their strength is kindness, praise that kindness and introduce other concepts like optimism or gratitude through their ability to be kind. However, if you identify that your child has a weakness that is going to sink their metaphorical ship, this needs to be dealt with. Particularly if it’s around relationships, because we must be able to get along with others.

Is loneliness increasing in certain societies among young people?

Loneliness is increasing in societies around the world, and we need to remember that mobile devices aren’t the same as in-person contact. Harvard studies over the past seventy years show that relationships are the key—it’s what life boils down to. It’s not the number of friends but the quality of friendships.

I teach the children I work with that there are five characteristics of good friends, and we count them on our fingers. They are:

  1. Be kind.
  2. Take turns and share.
  3. Show gratitude and appreciation.
  4. Tell the truth.
  5. Keep promises.

This checklist might not always work, especially during teenage years, but it helps make critical thinking part of an ingrained thought pattern. And it teaches the importance of real friends.

What roles do empathy and compassion have in mental fitness?

Empathy and compassion are part of emotional intelligence, and they’re particularly important because that’s how we understand what’s going on for others. Mental fitness is about having purpose and reason. And real long-lasting joy and fulfilment is actually about doing things for other people and having a purpose greater than yourself. We can teach kids to have that by teaching them how to help others—how to understand that not everyone has the same things in life. And that helping others shouldn’t be dependent on getting a ‘thank you’.

Is community important to mental fitness?

Very much. It takes a village to raise a child, but also, understanding that we are part of a bigger picture is part of mental fitness. And that taps into global issues like climate change.

With mental fitness, I talk about the circle of influence and the circle of concern, and I draw two concentric circles. We need to help our kids focus on the circle of influence. For example, kids see news about climate-related extreme weather. When children ask about these issues, we can say: “I understand you’re worried. Let’s find some things we can do to help the climate, like planting trees or cleaning up the beach.” Giving them something practical and tangible gives them a sense of autonomy. It helps them realise they can make a difference in the world and understand the importance of acting for someone other than themself.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently while helping to raise your nephew?

Many things. There are things I’m embarrassed I did, and I wish I had been more present and hadn’t rushed through life as much—that’s a lesson I’m still learning as a type-A personality. I also wish I had known about mental fitness when Mitchell was littleI wish I'd had words for him and some of the children I taught. I remember saying to a child, “Oh, that’s a great picture—you’re going to be an artist.” No, that’s setting kids up for failure. Now I would say, “Those are really beautiful colours—tell me about your painting.” I’ve trained myself to do that but wish I had known earlier.

What are your top tips for parents?

  1. Good enough is good enough. Sometimes baked beans on toast is the perfect dinner, and if you’re reading this article, it already shows you’re interested, ahead of the pack and wanting to do something. Remember that you’re already doing good things.
  2. It’s never too late. You haven’t broken your kids. If you want to start somewhere, choose one thing and go from there.
  3. Have self-compassion. It’s okay not to get everything right all of the time. We are learning to rewire our thinking while trying to teach our kids.


How to Raise Resilient Kids was first published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 29.  Illustration by Sakuya Higuchi.

Tags parenting