As a 2017 study reveals that girls as young as six already see themselves as less talented than their male classmates, it’s more important than ever that parents, caregivers and educators work to nurture girls’ self esteem from a young age.
In The Confident Child, psychologist Terri Apter reveals her manifesto for raising children of both sexes to believe in themselves, setting them up for a lifetime of self-belief. Though aimed primarily at parents, her practical lessons are as applicable to any adult with a vested interest in the little ones in their lives, as well as offering insight into your own childhood relationship with confidence and how those early experiences may still be playing out.
RECOGNISE THE SIGNS OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM
A child who is struggling with low confidence may overindulge in make believe as a means to pretending she is someone else, rarely seek attention or even become distressed when someone shows an interest in him, or become angry or frustrated when faced with a new challenge.
Resulting behaviours can range from difficulty in making simple choices or decisions (he or she simply doesn’t trust her own judgement) to bullying others or completely withdrawing from those around them.
THE FEAR CYCLE BEGINS IN CHILDHOOD
Regular everywomanNetwork users will be familiar with the concept of the fear cycle. You’re afraid of public speaking at work, so you avoid it at all costs, failing in the process to accrue presentation skills that could help build resilience against the fear, and so your anxiety continues. Children experience this cycle from a young age.
For example, they fear they won’t be liked, so they turn down invitations to play with other tots; as a result, they fail to develop social skills and anxiety about their lack of popularity continues. Breaking the fear cycle is the same for adults as it is in childhood. By helping children acquire the tools to face the thing that scares them, they learn skills and build confidence that in turn reduces anxiety.
ACKNOWLEDGE FEELINGS OF DOUBT AND LACK OF ABILITY
When a child tells you they’re rubbish at maths or the least liked pupil in class, many grown ups fall into the trap of trying to bolster self-esteem by pointing out this isn’t true. “Don’t be silly, of course you can/can’t/are/aren’t!” might seem like just the response that will put a stop to all the negativity.
But, argues Apter, when a child has articulated his or her innermost feelings, this is the last thing he or she wants to hear. In many cases, it just makes them feel doubly bad – not only are they terrible at maths, but their mum/dad/aunt/uncle/god parent now think they’re foolish for saying so.
Listen, acknowledge those feelings, and look for ways to reframe them in a positive light. “You think you’re terrible at maths? What I’m hearing is that you really want to get better. What might help you improve?” could be your starting point.
Now consider how you could reframe the limitations raised by your own inner voice – what if you were to look at those in a way that focussed less on weakness, more on the potential for improvement?
GOAL SETTING ISN’T JUST FOR PROFESSIONALS
Through setting achievable goals, children acquire self worth and ambition. As with adult goals, those of a child should be just enough of a challenge to motivate without overwhelming, appropriate to her abilities, and timely. They should also be broken down into achievable milestones.
So, she wants to be the next Picasso. Great, but for this week, let’s think about an art project she can really get her teeth into which will stretch her imagination and allow her to explore a little beyond her current level. With childhood, as with adult goals, there will be inevitable hiccups. Rather than gloss over failings, acknowledge what has been learned from them and how the plan could change to arrive at the same desired result.
The best praise for a child is encouragement of her own good judgement.
A fixed or growth mindset can set in young
Psychologist Carol Dweck says that we each sit on a scale between a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence exists in set amounts and we cannot do much about how bright we are) and a growth mindset (the belief that we can continue to learn, develop and grow through sustained effort).
When children are given messages that they are not good in certain disciplines, or that they are only good at one type of activity and not another, they begin to believe that there is no point in trying because their efforts will not be rewarded with progress.
EXCESSIVE PRAISE CAN BE EQUALLY DAMAGING TO A CHILD’S MOTIVATION
Whether it’s of your child’s most innate ability, or the skill they’re struggling with the most, being overly complimentary can make them question their efforts – and the merits of their grown-ups’ words. For children with aspirations to improve, encouragement is vital. “You’ve been working so hard and look how many more maths problems you’ve solved this week than you did last week!” is, however, far more effective than “You’re a mathematical genius!”.
TEACH THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISTAKES AND FAILURE
Children are capable of feeling a deep sense of shame about failings – perceived or otherwise – from which their self-esteem may take a serious blow. The lesson to be conveyed is that mistakes are a normal part of life; the means by which we learn, develop and grow. If she feels that she failed at her poetry recital because she fluffed a few lines, discuss the reason for the blip. Was she rushing? Was it a difficult word? Did she not put in enough practice? Whatever the reason, the ‘failure’ can be reframed as a ‘mistake’ which means she knows exactly what she can do to make her next attempt better.
DRAWING COMPARISONS BETWEEN SIBLINGS IS SHAKY GROUND
It’s common sense that if we tell a child that they’re not as naturally talented or able as their sibling, confidence will suffer. But for the child on the receiving end of the compliment, this comparison can be equally damaging for the pressure it relays to continue behaving in a particular way, as well as the pigeonhole it places the child in. Efforts should be made to focus on children as individuals, and to emphasise that activities can be enjoyed for the pleasure they bring and that the outcome isn’t always important.
DEALING WITH FRIENDSHIP DISPUTES CAN BE A CONFIDENCE-ENABLER
Arriving at compromises, creating win-win negotiations and overcoming tensions are skills as valuable in boardrooms as they are playgrounds. All too often, children are prevented from working through such scenarios in their peer groups by adult interference. The best way for an adult to help, is to encourage a child to find her own solutions. Apter suggests you first help the child focus on a goal (i.e. to continue playing a game together with the friend she’s fallen out with), then brainstorming a range of solutions that could best bring about that result. As she suggests responses she’d like to make, ask her what she thinks the likely outcome might be, and if that makes it a good course of action.