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.
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."
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.
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?"
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.
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
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