Featured in: Children's Health  |  April 11, 2016

Aiding Achievement

Fostering your children’s self-confidence will help them rise to life’s challenges.

By Heather Larson   |   Edited by Amanda Mauceri

As a parent, you want what’s best for your children. You’d like them to take risks, meet new people and be happy, and not be anxious or worried about what others think of them.

None of that comes automatically.

By encouraging them to rely on their own resourcefulness, however, and by loving them (even when they make mistakes), you can help your children develop a healthy sense of self-confidence.

“Self-esteem is when your child believes in himself. Self-confidence is knowing what you can accomplish, based on personal performance.”

Focusing on Accomplishment

Self-esteem and self-confidence mean two different things, according to Frank Sileo, PhD, a psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and the author of five children’s books. “Self-esteem is when your child believes in himself. Self-confidence is knowing what you can accomplish, based on personal performance.”

Self-confidence can be destroyed when your child fails a test and he then says he’s stupid. According to Denise Daniels, a child development and parenting expert in Minneapolis, Minnesota, other signs of concern include:

  • Being withdrawn
  • Not wanting to make decisions
  • Not wanting to try new things

When a child exhibits these signs, “Then it’s time to employ some strategies for building self-confidence,” says Daniels.

Excessive self-confidence, though, can be off-putting and set a child up for failure. This is part of the controversy surrounding America’s “trophy culture,” which was recently featured in an episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

The gist of this side of the argument is that if every kid gets a trophy for participation, it celebrates mediocrity and rewards minimal effort – rather than motivating kids to push themselves harder and celebrate their feats and achievements. If a kid expects a trophy or reward, it breeds over-confidence and complacency.

“Our charge as parents is to help our children develop a healthy, realistic sense of self-confidence,” says Paul LeBuffe, director of Devereux Center for Resilient Children in Villanova, Pennsylvania.

Giving Your Child a Boost

“Imagine how you’d feel overhearing something positive said about you. It works for kids, too.”

Here’s how to foster confidence. (Modify as needed to match your child’s age.)

1. Set Your Child Up to Succeed

Encourage your son or daughter to take small steps when trying something new. “This will keep anxiety at bay or at least to a minimum,” Sileo says. “A child has to believe he had a part in his success.” Sileo gives the example of learning to ride a bicycle. First you put training wheels on the bike and walk alongside. You then take the training wheels off but still walk next to your child to watch for falls. After full balance is achieved, the child can be allowed to ride alone.

2. Practice Bibliotherapy

Find an age-appropriate book in which a child faces a particular concern your son or daughter has, such as wrestling with a fear of the dark or losing at sports. Then use the book to start a discussion with your child: The character in the book handled the problem this way; do you think that would work for you? “Anyone can use bibliotherapy even if they aren’t a trained therapist,” says Sileo. “Every story we read has a moral and a solution. Talking about the solution can lead your children to their own solutions, which helps them gain confidence.”

3. Use Journaling

Often having your children write about or draw pictures of what’s wrong gets them closer to a solution. “Even older children like to draw pictures, and then it doesn’t feel so much like homework,” says Sileo. “Teens also like to write songs or free associate on paper.” Sileo believes that this kind of creativity lets them express themselves, which can be very revealing. But give your child some space. Don’t correct spelling or grammar, and if your son or daughter doesn’t want to share his or her journaling with you, you need to respect that. 

4. Compliment Failures

Eventually everyone fails but to a child it can be devastating. “We want kids to keep trying and take risks,” says Daniels. When your child loses a baseball game you should say, “It’s not a big deal,” but add something along the lines of, “I like the way you shook the opposite team members’ hands after the game.” Or in the case of a bad grade or failed test, “I like how you studied hard for that class; maybe we should get a tutor for you so you can do better.” Praise the effort, not the outcome.

5. Admire Your Child When Talking to Others

Daniels says it boosts children’s self-confidence when you compliment them to someone else. When you know your son or daughter is eavesdropping, mention how hard she studied for a test or how much time he practiced throwing the baseball.

Imagine how you’d feel overhearing something positive said about you. It works for kids, too.

Having a healthy sense of self-confidence is crucial. Fortunately, it is a quality that can be nurtured.

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