There’s so much that I want for my kids. I want them to experience good health, have empathetic hearts, to play and explore with independence, and to express kindness with every gesture and thought. And while this is true for all the caregivers out there, in addition to those values, a simple, yet complicated word comes to mind: confidence.
From my wise adult perch, kid confidence appears simple because I’m well-aware of the benefits. But on the other hand, confidence is complicated because I know how easily it can be lost. Even at this (mostly) grounded and secure point in my life, all it takes is one less-than-positive interaction with a friend or a work project I’m not feeling solid on (or really, any number of things) for my sure-footed foundation to tremble.
But in those moments when my confidence is tested, I have the emotional and pragmatic tools to keep me steady. Yes, even when I want to buckle at the knees. So the question comes: How do I best instill a keep-your-chin-up confidence in my children?
Feature image by Hannah Haston.
It’s a careful balance of taking my kids’ road bumps seriously—without taking them so seriously that I send them into an anxious tailspin. I want to fill them with thoughtful strategies and level-headed advice, encouraging them to play upon their strengths. There are parts of their relationships that they can control and parts that they can’t. I want them to understand the difference.
But as I’m extending the rope and (little by little) letting them practice independence, I still want to pack their lunches until they’re 30. And I want to include Post-It notes reminding them how unique and special they are.
And, perhaps most notably, I want to unplug the internet and hide our phones away. (Especially recently, deep breaths.)
But I can only do half those things. Acknowledging there’s only so much I can do as a parent, I got in touch with Austin-based licensed family therapist and board-certified art therapist, Carolyn Mehlomakulu for her gentle guidance and pro advice.
Keep reading for Carolyn’s wisdom and insights on how to support your children in building confidence, practicing authenticity, and little by little, learning to thrive.
What are signs of a child with a healthy sense of self-confidence?
When a child experiences healthy self-confidence, they may be able to:
- Recognize the things they are good at.
- Know that they have positive qualities.
- Be willing to try new things.
- Show determination during a challenging task.
- Be able to move on from mistakes or setbacks.
Children with healthy self-confidence also tend to have a growth mindset. They recognize that they are able to learn new things and improve through practice and hard work.
What are signs that they may be experiencing low self-confidence?
Signs of low self-confidence may include:
- Making negative comments about themselves.
- Being hesitant to try new things or expecting that they will fail.
- Giving up easily when something is challenging.
- Having trouble identifying any of their own strengths or positive qualities.
As opposed to a growth mindset, children with low self-confidence may have the opposite: a fixed mindset. This means that they believe their abilities are fixed or unchangeable so they struggle to recognize that they can improve at things. In relationships, low self-confidence can also lead to people-pleasing behavior or being overly influenced by what others think.
Why is it important for children to have healthy self-esteem?
Self-esteem is important for general wellbeing and mental health. If a child does not feel good about themselves, they will often have co-existing problems with depression, anxiety, or anger. Children with healthy self-esteem also tend to have better relationships with others (both as children and as they get older).
In relationships, children with poor self-esteem are more likely to either act as bullies to try to make themselves feel better or to lack assertiveness and put up with bad treatment from others. Self-esteem also plays an important role in learning and trying new things. A child with healthy self-esteem is more likely to engage in challenging activities and work hard.
How do children develop self-esteem?
Self-esteem begins with unconditional love and strong attachment in the parent-child relationship. It continues to develop through experiences that people have and feedback that they receive from others. When a child has an experience such as being able to successfully make something, complete an activity, or learn something new, they build their self-esteem and sense of capability. When children receive feedback from others about positive qualities that they have, this also helps to develop self-esteem and identity.
What are some ways parents can help boost a child’s self esteem?
- Provide a foundation of unconditional love and positive regard. Children develop better self-esteem when they feel that they are loved and accepted by their parents or caregivers no matter what.
- Praise should be specific and tied to examples. When you see your child doing well, reflect back specifically what you see and what it means. Vague, general statements like “good job” are not as impactful as something specific like, “you were being very kind when you shared your toys.”
- Recognize both achievement and effort. Be sure to point out and praise when you see that your child is working hard, trying their best, or not giving up. Those growth mindset skills are essential to healthy self-esteem.
- Reflect back to your child a variety of positive qualities that you see in them and share with them what you feel makes them unique. Look for opportunities to point out strengths like humor, creativity, kindness, determination, curiosity, etc.
- Balance criticism or negative feedback with plenty of positive comments or interactions. Sometimes, parents get too focused on pointing out things that need to be worked on or giving corrections, which leads to children feeling that they are always messing things up. Some people suggest trying to give kids a ratio of five positive comments or interactions for every one piece of redirection or negative feedback that you need to give.
- Model positive self-talk and acceptance in the ways that you talk about yourself. When parents engage in negative self-talk or make critical comments about themselves, this teaches their children to be self-critical. Instead, parents can model healthy self-esteem by talking about why their mistakes are OK. Instead of making negative comments about themselves, they can model encouraging self-talk and join in activities they may not be the best at.
- Make the time to really listen. Whether your child is talking with you about a problem that they have, sharing about their favorite interest, or offering an opinion on something, stopping what you are doing to give them your full attention for a few minutes is a great way to let your child know that they worth your time. Doing so can validate their unique interests and lets them know that their thoughts and opinions are valuable.
- Give your children lots of opportunities to try new things and give them encouragement when something is difficult. This allows your child to have experiences that will build healthy self-esteem and help them learn about themselves.
- Help your child develop healthy friendships. Do what you can to gently cultivate positive, supportive friendships for your child by hosting playdates at your house with positive peers or getting your child involved in activities where they will meet peers who are like them or have similar interests. If you are concerned that your child has a friend who is hurting their self-esteem, talk to your child about your concerns, how they deserve to be treated, and ways that they can be assertive in standing up for themselves.
How can social media negatively impact a child’s self-confidence?
Social media seems to be most harmful (for both children and adults) when it leads to a pattern of comparing ourselves to others. The things that we post on social media often show a skewed, more positive version of our lives. We selectively announce accomplishments, show fun things we’re doing, use filters to enhance our appearance, etc.
When someone compares their normal life to someone’s idealized, filtered version, that negative comparison can often hurt self-esteem. Social media also seems hurtful to children’s self-esteem when it leads to problems like cyberbullying. Without social media, a child who experiences bullying at school is at least able to leave it behind when they go home for the day. But social media and technology can mean that the bullying continues even when outside of school, making it even more challenging to deal with.
However, the impacts of social media and technology on children’s self-esteem are not all negative. Technology can have a positive impact of a child’s self-confidence when is allows them to be connected to positive friendships, pursue interests and learn new skills, and connect with communities that they relate to (especially if they are feeling different or left out at school).
What books would you recommend if caregivers want to learn more about support their child’s confidence?
Two great books I recommend are How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and The Self-Esteem Trap.
Are there any resources you’d recommend for kids if they’re feeling low?
I’d recommend books about growth mindset and the value of being yourself. These are great for encouraging kids and building self-esteem. You can find a few of my favorites below.