How can I encourage self-confidence?

One of the most important tasks parents have is to consistently let their child know she’s capable, loved, and worthy of attention. Her self-esteem is based largely on feedback from her parents. If they show they value her, she’ll generally feel good about herself. If they concentrate on her faults, she may develop a poor self-image.

It’s normal for ten- to thirteen-year-olds to have changing opinions and fleeting self-doubts during this self-conscious stage. One moment they boast about their skills and the next moment put themselves down: “I’m a good hockey player.” “I can’t sing.” “I’m too tall.” “I’m smart and do really well in school.” “I can make people laugh.” “I stink at lacrosse.” “I’m so fat and ugly.” “I do everything wrong.”

Because kid’s feelings about themselves fluctuate, it’s important for parents to emphasize strengths rather than weaknesses. The attitude a child develops about herself during pre-adolescence, whether positive or negative, helps determine the direction she’ll go in when she enters adolescence, a period of even greater uncertainty.

Some parents are not supportive. In an effort to improve their child’s behavior or to express frustration and disappointment, they speak harshly: “You’re such a slob.” “Why can’t you be like your sister?” “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you speak up?” “You run too slowly.” “You’ll never get to college at this rate.” A child who hears these messages feels she can never please her parents or live up to their standards. Her grades, her appearance, her abilities, or her personality will never be good enough. In such circumstances, it’s hard for her to develop confidence.

Some parents who speak negatively were themselves criticized as children and may have grown up with a lack of confidence. Even though they once struggled against harsh words and treatment, they though repeat the pattern with their own children.

Other adults, particularly teachers, can influence a child’s self-Schools rarely work hard enough at building confidence or offering praise. More often, students are reprimanded for turning in work late, making mistakes, or talking. One child may get a poor grade on a project even though she put in hours of hard work. Another who is forgetful may be embarrassed in front of the class: “You’re always turning your work in late.”

Coaches, too, can affect a child’s sense of confidence. An encouraging coach can make a child feel good, regardless of her athletic ability. A demanding coach can make even a skilled young athlete doubt herself: “One more bad pitch and you’re out.” “What’s wrong with you? Go after the ball.”

You probably know if your child lacks confidence, since a poor self-image is hard to hide. She may frequently put herself down or say, “I can’t,” “I’m no good,” or, “I’m the worst on the team.” You can tell a lot from her body language, especially if she slouches, doesn’t make eye contact, or carries her in an overly self-conscious way. If you detect a consistent pattern of negative thinking, you need to help her feel better about herself.

Start by evaluating the messages you give her. Do you encourage her self-doubt? Are your expectations too high? Do you respect her feelings? Are you too demanding? Do you say things that make her feel inferior? Do you tell her you love her? Are you hard to please? Do you dwell on her weaknesses but take her strengths for granted?

Give her more verbal rewards. Praise her accomplishments and point out her talents and endearing traits. Talk often about her successes and ignore or minimize her faults. Encourage her and offer support when she takes risks such as trying out for a school play.

Talk, as a family, about what you like in yourselves and each other, and what you have to offer: “Your smile makes other people feel happy.” “Why do you think Alison and Megan like you so much?” Discuss issues that contribute to your child’s lack of confidence: “Would being taller really make you a better person?” “What’s wrong with being shy?”

Help your child find activities in which she can succeed. If she’s not good at team sports, have her try an individual sport such as swimming, tennis, karate, or gymnastics. Encourage her to pursue special interests in computers, music, art, or dance. Involve her in community service—she’ll feel good about helping others.

If she’s discouraged about her schoolwork, help her with difficult lessons and assignments, consider hiring a tutor, and investigate special programs that might make her feel better about her abilities as a student.

Once you start treating your child in a more positive way, you should see changes in her behavior and attitudes. She may seem more confident and begin to smile more. She also may start to treat friends and family members in nicer ways as she begins feeling better about herself. In all areas of her life, improved self-esteem will help her feel happier, more satisfied, and more successful.

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