As a teacher, I see it time and again: Kids who are unreasonably hard on themselves. Kids who consistently underestimate their own skills. Kids who think they can't learn, and who can't see what they have learned. As a teacher, and as a parent, my job is to teach, and it's also to help kids see what they are capable of. But some kids are, for whatever reason, insecure — in their abilities, in their relationships, even in their self-worth. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to support insecure children.
It's not as simple as giving more compliments and awards — as the "participation trophy" has taught us. And it's not as simple as taking away the participation trophies either. It can take time to build self-confidence. And it can take even longer to rebuild broken self-confidence after a trauma or loss.
So, what can you do, if it's so complicated? Romper talked to Dr. Jim Taylor, a Ph.D. psychologist and author of five parenting books. He works directly with young people and their parents through his consulting practice and speaks to parents, educators, and students about psychology, including helping kids with insecurity.
Dr. Taylor explains that insecurity is a complex issue. He says it can manifest as "Uncertainty or anxiety about oneself, doubt about one’s capabilities, [or] feelings of inadequacy." These are internal feelings, so they can be hard to notice. But, Dr. Taylor explains that insecurity often shows more visible signs, "[It is] often expressed as perfectionism, fear of failure, anxiety, stress, doubt, or worry."
Insecurity can come from a singular traumatic experience or from an accumulation of small moments of anxiety or self-criticism, reports Psychology Today. But undoing insecurity is always a step-by-step process. Insecurity can be caused by one awful incident, but it can't be fixed by one magical intervention. That can sound disheartening. Yes, you've got a big, long job ahead of you. But looking at it a different way, this can be good news. Each moment, each chance to try to support an insecure child, is low-stakes. Yes, it's important, but it's only one moment of many, so you don't have to be perfect (in fact, perfectionism can cause insecurity). And there are lots of things you can do to help. Moment by moment, conversation by conversation, experience by experience, there are lots of chances to support kids with insecurity. Here are some things you can do.
1. Find Out What's Going On
Kids may have insecurity for a variety of reasons, explains Dr. Taylor, including "growing up in a family in which they didn’t feel safe, loved, or valued." He adds that some kids with insecurity may have "parents who were angry, threatening, abusive."
Often, it grows slowly, but it can be triggered by a single traumatic event, like a school shooting, abuse, or a death in the family. So, one thing you can do to help is to find out if there's something going on — if there's something in the child's life that's causing the insecurity. (Not every insecure child has been traumatized, but it's worth checking to be sure.)
2. Enlist A Professional, If Needed
Dr. Taylor explains that one of the most important things to do to support a child with insecurity is to "offer experiences and tools that can counter the thoughts and feelings of insecurity." And those "tools" may include professional help.
Insecurity, like any issue related to mental health, may require professional support. If the insecurity is severe, or if it's causing problems in the child's life — or if you've found out about a particular trauma or underlying issue — you may want to find a mental health professional to help out. If you're not sure where to start, try asking your child's pediatrician. They may be able to provide a referral.
3. Support Yourself
Now, I'm not saying your kid learned their insecurity from you, or that it's your fault. I'm saying that helping a kid through a difficult issues is, well, difficult. Whether you have your own insecurities or not (ok, really, who doesn't have some insecurity?), it can be hard to see your kid sad or upset, and to feel like you can't just fix it. So, make sure you're getting the support you need. For your kid, and also for yourself.
4. Build Connection
Because insecurity can often come from feeling unloved or undervalued, Dr. Taylor emphasizes that it's important to "help them feel safe, loved, and valued." This helps counter and undo the experiences that led to the feelings of insecurity. And it sets the stage for all the other communications you'll want to have, to help out.
To someone who's insecure, compliments can sound like lies. Imagine you fell in the mud on the way to work, but when you walk into the office, a coworker you don't know very well tells you they like your scarf, which is the only part of you not covered in mud. Are they being sarcastic? Trying to pretend they don't see the mud all over you, when of course they see it? Best case scenario, they're distracted and clueless and actually failed to notice that you're covered in mud. Which means they're kind of spacey, so their opinion of your scarf probably doesn't carry that much weight, since they're clearly not an astute judge of fashion.
But you know what the key to this scenario is? That it's a coworker you don't know well. What if it was your best friend who complimented your scarf? Maybe she was trying to cheer you up by making you laugh at your fall or by offering a genuine compliment to brighten your day. This friend knows your sense of style and noticed when you bought yourself something special.
You see how different that is? In order to help build someone's sense of confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth, it's important to build connection. Spend time together. Talk together. Watch TV together. Whatever it is, it will bring you a bit closer together.
5. Don't Lie
Pretty much everyone can spot an insincere compliment, but people suffering from insecurity have super-sensitive insincerity detectors. In fact, they may often perceive real compliments as insincere. So don't try to compliment them out of their insecurity.
Self-esteem comes from a true sense of one's own worth. It can't be built on false or overstated compliments.
And, yes, do give compliments. Genuine ones. Dr. Taylor emphasizes that it's important to "be positive and encouraging, and to show confidence in the child."
6. Help Them Fail... And Keep Trying
Dr. Paula K. Rauch of the Clay Center for Young Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital explains that "children develop confidence and competence by facing new experiences, difficult transitions and unavoidable frustrations throughout childhood." In other words, having a hard time is good for building confidence. So, help your kids find small challenges. Things they can try, struggle with a little and then succeed at.
Then, you'll have something to give a genuine compliment about.
What will make a good small challenge for your kid? It's going to be different for every kid. Psychologists and educators call this sweet spot the Proximal Zone Of Development. Think about what your kid is good at. Is she an avid reader? Is he really patient with his younger sibling? Think of something that would be a little bit harder, or even just a little bit different. Maybe reading a challenging poem together. Maybe helping an elderly relative. Help your kid do something a little tricky, and then help them see what they've accomplished. Then try it again, with another tiny challenge, maybe in another arena of their life. Build bit by bit.
7. Praise Effort, Not Accomplishments
One of the most influential educational theories in recent years is the concept of "mindset." Dr. Carol Dweck and her research team discovered that the way a person thinks about learning and accomplishment has a huge effect on how well they do — and on how they feel about themselves. Basically, they divided people into two groups. Those who believe that skills comes from innate, fixed talent or smarts have a "fixed mindset." Those who believe that skills come from growing those skills through effort and practice have a "growth mindset." And it turns out that people with a growth mindset are actually able to learn and succeed more than those who believe in innate talent. And, they tend to be more self-confident. When faced with a challenge, they are less likely to feel insecure.
The key to Dweck's breakthrough research is that if you teach someone to have a growth mindset, they can gain greater confidence and success.
So, talk to your kids about growth mindset. And praise their effort, to remind them that skills come from practice. It will help them see that they can learn and grow — that they're not stuck with whatever skills (or deficits) they perceive themselves to have.
And, if that all sounds too abstract, here are some phrases to try — whether they succeeded or not. "I know you worked for a long time on that." "How did you learn to do that?" "How long did it take you to make that?"
8. Talk About Feelings
Dr. Taylor reminds us that it's important to "acknowledge their challenges" when helping a kid deal with insecurity. For kids of all ages, helping them talk about their feelings can help them unpack and process their emotions. Practice active listening, echoing back what your kid says and asking open-ended questions to find out more. Resist the temptation to immediately try to fix it or reassure. Sometimes it can be really helpful to give an insecure kid the chance to feel insecure — and to be accepted in their insecurity.
9. Compliment Different Things
Not just in your kids, but in lots of people. Each person has unique skills and assets. Some are clever, and some are patient. Some are musical, and some are great listeners. Your kid is going to get a sense of which qualities you value from what you compliment, in your kids and in others. Do you tend to praise good grades? Do you get really excited about the Olympics and sports? Your kiddo may think those are the only important qualities, and they'll judge themselves by that scale.
So, find opportunities to compliment other virtues. Especially smaller, quieter ones. Not everyone is going to get perfect grades. Not everyone is going to be poet laureate. But lots of people can be generous or attentive. Lots of people can perceptive about art or music.
Dr. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychologist and author of five parenting books
Dr. Paula K. Rauch, M.D., of the Clay Center for Young Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital