Why ‘Toughen Up’ Doesn’t Cut It with Children and Teens

Group of children run along a beachSo often when I ask people in my therapy office (mostly children and teens) to brainstorm strategies for coping with certain difficult situations, the initial answer I get is something along the lines of “I need to toughen up,” “I need to just deal with it,” or “I’ve got to be a man.” The difficult situation itself could be a disagreement with a sibling, a problem with a peer, or an uncomfortable issue with a teacher at school.

Children pick up these quick-fix mantras from a variety of places—television, school, peers, and parents among them. When a child gets emotional, often the quick, easy fix is to say, “toughen up,” especially when whatever caused the child to be upset seems minor. The message is clear: Let’s move on, kid, because we’ve got things to do and worrying about this doesn’t fit into my schedule.

Is there anything wrong with that? What, if any, damage is done when a child is told to “toughen up”? Let’s break down the ripple effect this type of response has on a child’s psyche over time.

  • Five minutes later: The child feels minimized. The situation that caused the initial reaction has been left unresolved. The child may be thinking he or she is dumb or weak for bringing up the situation in the first place. He or she may also resent the person who instructed the child to “just deal with it” because that person doesn’t seem to care. 
  • Five months later: The child hesitates to mention a problem when it occurs, fearing the reprimand of not being “tough enough.” This teaches the child to “stuff” emotions instead of verbalizing them and learning to process them. Acting out may increase as the uncomfortable emotions aren’t dealt with promptly. For their part, the adults in the child’s life may not understand what is causing the unwelcome behaviors. If an adult attempts to discuss the child’s emotions, the child may resist and have increasing difficulty sharing those emotions because he or she has been taught to ignore them.
  • Five years later: The child—perhaps now a teenager or young adult—has a difficult time empathizing with others about their emotions because he or she expects others to “toughen up” or “deal with it” when something doesn’t go their way. The child may be more likely to perpetuate the belief that many emotionally difficult situations should be ignored.

The biggest problem with telling a child to toughen up is that it undermines true resilience, which is learned by experiencing adversity or uncomfortable feelings, processing why they occur, and learning new and more positive ways to reframe those situations.

There is, of course, something to be said for “letting go” of certain minor situations that are upsetting. However, that needs to come from within the child and not from the belief that getting upset by something means there is something wrong with him or her.

Why ‘Being a Man’ Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Finally, a note about boys who think they need to “be a man” when something doesn’t go their way: The children I see in my practice who use phrases such as this are, in my experience, more likely to be aggressive in the responses they give others.

Aside from what it suggests about being a woman, the phrase “be a man” has a sense of machismo associated with it that indicates a need to be strong and aggressive. In today’s world, acting on this impulse (at school, for example) may lead to discipline problems and resolves few. It perpetuates stereotypes many boys may not feel they fill as adults and reduces the likelihood they will seek help for emotional or mental health concerns because “being a man” means ignoring those feelings.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Oliver

    December 7th, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    Sure I want my so to be tough and not take any crap from other kids. But how is me telling him to do that going to make him ever feel any better about himself? If anything I suspect that it would only make him feel worse, like he needs to be something that he isn’t and that I love him less for that.

  • stephanie

    December 7th, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    We say things and mean nothing by it, but our children perceive them as something that is totally different and we may have no idea the hurt and damage that this is doing to them on the inside.

    I wish that I could say that I have never done this but I know that I am just as guilty of this as the next person is. Makes me stop and think just a little bit longer about what I am saying and what kind of effect that this could have on my children.

  • Risha

    December 8th, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    Do we want our young men to be kind and considerate or do we want them to be aggressive pigs? I think that we know how we need to talk to them and exhibit behavior to them if we want them to be meaningful members of society, and what we do to make them inconsiderate and pushy.

  • Wayne

    December 9th, 2015 at 10:07 AM

    It can be very damaging, that’s for sure

  • llz

    December 11th, 2015 at 1:01 PM

    my families motto GET R DONE
    its fine for me and has made me a better man.

  • Oscar

    December 14th, 2015 at 3:33 PM

    I know very few people who respond well to this. They either see it as an insult and so that causes a great deal of hurt, or they see it as something that they will choose to rebel against. Either way, you can see that there are very limited numbers who are going to respond to this in a positive way. I much prefer someone to tell me something good that I do instead of always focusing on the bad, and I think that when someone does this enough for you and builds you up then you can take things like this a little better. When this is all you have ever heard, it is easy to see that you will always second guess your capabilities and wonder if you are doing enough.

  • Robert

    May 13th, 2016 at 3:06 PM

    Too often, parents think that they need to TEACH kids to be tough and/or independent. The truth is that these qualities will develop naturally when children FEEL safe and loved.

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