True or false: Self-confidence is developed throughout your entire lifetime.
According to Psychologist and Founder of the Brain Academy, Gregory Caremans, the window for developing self-confidence is between the age of two and twelve years. After that, there is very little fluctuation (increase or decrease) in our self-confidence. Of course, we can continue to work on ourselves after that point but if we don't have a strong foundation to work from by twelve, it will always be something we have to work hard for.
This is an astounding revelation and questions the way most people think about raising children today. For example, instead of protecting young children from everything that might be scary for them, should we instead be trying to expose them to as many challenges and situations as possible so they can learn how to overcome obstacles, push themselves passed their comfort zone, and learn what they're truly capable of?
That's exactly what this research tells me.
Where does confidence come from?
Before we delve into how you can help your child build their self-confidence, it's important to know what confidence is and where it comes from.
Confidence comes from having a sense of competence, meaning someone feels that they are capable of dealing with whatever challenge comes their way.
The best way to build your child's sense of competence is to enable them to test their abilities. That means giving them the space to explore, be themselves, and learn from their mistakes.
That said, it's also important to treat your child as the age they are and not give them more responsibility than they can handle. In fact, expecting your child to take on more than their age group is capable of, can actually be harmful to their self-value.
Sounds tricky, I know. But to help you understand what's right for your child, we've outlined the best techniques for building confidence in children according to different age groups below.
The techniques listed for the younger age groups can also be applied for older children so feel free to pick and choose what you think will work best for your child. The important thing is not to do the reverse and apply the techniques in the older age group to a younger child.
Confidence-Building for 2-4 year olds
1) Teach them your love is unconditional
Just because you love your children unconditionally doesn't mean they know that to be true. Children should understand without a shadow of doubt that your love is unconditional and is not reliant on other factors such as good behavior.
Children at this age can't possibly behave 100% of the time because they simply don't have that control over their emotions yet so after every meltdown make sure you hold them tight and tell them they're safe and that you love them.
2) Pay attention to them, even when it's hard
All human beings need to feel seen and heard in order to feel valued.
When it comes to paying attention to your child, even when it's exhausting, it's important that your child feels seen and heard by you. Of course, you might not have time to watch every dance routine they'd like to show you but even setting the expectation that you would love to see it at a more appropriate time will at least acknowledge them, which is better than ignoring them completely.
Listening to your child is another way to help them feel valued. Oftentimes, parents dismiss what their child has to say because they see them as "just a child". However, children have a right to be heard and their voices matter just as much as anyone else's. Listening to their ideas, thoughts, and questions will show them that you care about them and they are important to you.
3) Socialise with your children
It's extremely important that a child at this age feels loved not only by you but by your friends and family, too. Integrating them socially will really help with this. Introduce your child to other people instead of having them just tag along and hide behind you or worse again, sit in a corner by themselves.
You can include them in the conversation by asking them questions and elaborating on their answers for the new people. This is a great opportunity to show your child how proud you are of them and when they see other people taking an interest too, the child will immediately feel important.
4) Set rules and stick to them
Boundaries and rules are very important for a child at this age but what's dangerous to a child's confidence is when they break a rule and don't get in trouble for it but the next time they do the same thing, you hit the roof.
Rule enforcement needs to be consistent, otherwise the child will become confused about what's right, what's wrong, what causes mommy or daddy to get angry and what doesn't. This hurts their confidence in their own decision-making and if it continues over a prolonged period could have serious consequences.
5) Don't Over-Praise
We've written on the blog before about how over-praising children is a lot more harmful than you would think. At this young age though, it's especially true as children are forming opinions of themselves and their abilities.
When you tell a child they're amazing for absolutely everything, they lose sight of what's realistically amazing and what's not. The last thing you want is for your child to start school thinking they're a genius at everything only to discover there are children in their class who are better at sports, reading, or spelling than they are.
Discovering this in a setting like the classroom among strangers where the child could also potentially be ridiculed is sure to break not just their confidence in their own abilities but also the trust in what you're telling them at home.
6) Let them explore
Being over-protective is harmful to a child's confidence because they don't get to learn their own abilities. Remember, confidence comes from a sense of competence. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt, says you, as a parent, have a responsibility to "increase life exposures and experiences so the child can develop confidence in coping with a larger world."
They're not always going to have you next to them throughout their life solving all their challenges for them and hiding all of life's ugly truths. Let them explore the world and skin their knees. Just think of it as short-term pain for long-term gain.
7) Watch your words
We often don't realise the impact of our words on children's self-esteem and ability to deal with emotion. We've written before on the blog about how saying "don't cry" to a child who's upset can be detrimental to their ability to show or discuss negative emotion and more examples of this include saying things as simple as "sorry, she's shy" in front of your child.
Parenting expert Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D recommends that we talk about shyness as how your child feels, not who she is. For example, if your daughter is hiding behind your leg and refusing to say hello, instead of excusing the behaviour as her being shy, instead you could say to your daughter "You feel shy right now. That's OK -- you can say hello when you're ready."
"It's a subtle difference, but saying 'You feel' is much better than saying 'You are,' because it names a momentary state, rather than the essence of your child's being," Payne Bryson says.
8) Encourage curiosity
Paul Harris of Harvard University told The Guardian that asking questions is a helpful exercise for a child's development because it means they realise that there are things they don't know.
That means that when the child starts school, they are more open to being a beginner and learning new things instead of getting frustrated and letting self-doubt creep in when they don't know the answers.
Confidence-Building for 5-7 year olds
1) Encourage problem-solving
As mentioned earlier, children need to test their abilities in order to find their own competence level. Children who learn to problem-solve for themselves tend to be better able to manage their emotions, think creatively, and persist until they find a solution.
As a result, they become less anxious of new situations and more confident in their abilities to overcome obstacles that may come into their path.
The Big Life Journal blog recommends teaching children aged 5 to 7 to ask themselves the following five questions to help them problem-solve:
- What am I feeling
- What's the problem
- What are some possible solutions
- What would happen if ...
- Which one should I try
2) Don't throw a pity party
When something doesn't go to plan for a child, showering them in pity isn't going to help the situation or the child's ability to move passed inconveniences. Bad things don't happen to us, they just happen, so teaching this to your child will help them feel less victimized and prevent them from feeling sorry for themselves when things go wrong.
Instead of saying things like "Aw, you poor thing, it's not fair", saying something more positive like "when things don't go to plan in life, there's always another solution we can try, let's try think of one" will help your child see that there's always a plan B and it's not the end of the world when something doesn't go to plan.
3) Identify areas for development
When children understand that they're not perfect (and no one is), they become more open to learning and developing their skills. This is called having a growth mindset. Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist and author of 15 parenting books, says parents should see "uh-oh" moments as an opportunity to teach their kids not to fear failure.
If you notice your child is struggling with something, whether it's a new subject, socialising with others, or a sport or activity, give them open and honest feedback to help them get better at it. Focusing on the effort will be very important here so that you don't hurt their confidence. Avoid saying things like "you're not very good at football" and instead say "would you like to practice your passing with me so you can get better at it?"
4) Talk about your own successes and the work it took to achieve them
Showing your children how good it feels to accomplish something as well as the work it took to get there, including the mistakes you made along the way will set a really good example for them about the reality of success.
Finding opportunities to share your failures and successes with your children will show them that it's OK to fail and that success takes hard work but is worth it in the end. If they hear this at home, they'll be less likely to let it affect them personally when they make mistakes or don't get the results they wanted.
5) Remind them of their skills and potential
Children often aren't aware of their own skills or talents, especially under the age of 8, but you're constantly seeing them develop in specific areas and so are in the best position to tell them where they should focus their efforts. Tell them what they're good at and remind them of their potential, particularly if they seem to be getting a little bit down about not excelling at something else.
If they keep failing at something that they don't have potential to get better at, it'll be better for their self-esteem to refocus their efforts toward something they do show potential in. And it goes without saying, you should be as gentle as possible when steering them in a different direction.
6) Start a hobby or activity with other children
Playing with other children improves the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of a child. Through play, children learn the skills they will need for their future study, work and relationships so encouraging your child to interact with other children is great for their development.
You don't need to spend money to give a child a hobby or organise playdates so get creative and find some other children and activities to get your child involved in.
7) Start letting them do things on their own
The more capable a child is, the more confident the child will become. With confidence, and a full repertoire of important life skills, comes a stronger, more positive self-image that will enable your child to take on whatever life imposes.
It might be difficult to take a step back and stop doing everything for your child but the long-term rewards are worth it. Some examples include letting the child choose their own outfit, help with the cleaning up, grocery shopping, or even help you decide small tasks such as what to make for dinner.
8) Start teaching them about eye-contact and using a voice that people can hear
One of the most noticeable things about people with a lack of confidence is their inability to hold eye contact or project their voice so that people can hear them clearly. This can be taught from a very young age and parents should work on these skills with their children to give them a strong advantage in life.
9) Don't push too hard
According to Tina Payne Bryson, children whose parents push them too far, too quickly, end up withdrawing even more and are less likely to try the same task again in the future.
To reiterate, confidence comes from a sense of competence so if you push something too hard and the child avoids the task because of that pressure, they may never end up feeling competent, and therefore confident in that task.
If your child is insisting that he doesn't want to do something that feels terrifying to him, let him know you're there to make him feel safe, but don't force it.
10) Don't criticise their efforts
If your child is scared to fail because they worry you'll be angry or disappointed, they'll never try new things. It might be frustrating to see your child fail at something, particularly if it's school work, but instead of getting mad, try to take a look at the effort that was put in to achieve the result. Identify why the child isn't doing as well as they should be and give them the help they need to improve.
Confidence-Building for 8-12 year olds
1) Teach them empathy and kindness
While you can introduce empathy and kindness from a much younger age, true empathy for others normally doesn't start to blossom until age 8 or 9, according to the BabyCenter website.
You can teach your child empathy from age 8 by asking them how they would feel if they were in someone else's shoes, by showing compassion to others yourself, and by encouraging them to comfort another child who might be upset.
2) Identify talents or passions
At this age, children often have many activities going on throughout their week but keep a close eye out for something they excel in. This could be anything from their art to an after-school activity that they're particularly passionate about.
Encourage these talents and passions, but of course without forcing it. These are often the things that shape who we become later in life so encouraging them to chase them early will get them a great head-start.
Possibly more importantly though, remind them that they don't have to do everything simply because other people are doing it. Trying to do too many things can hurt their confidence because they can never truly master anything. Give them gentle reminders that if they focus on what they really love doing, they have more of a chance to be great at it and actually have fun at the same time.
3) Develop their growth mindset
It's extremely important to teach children that it's OK to be a beginner at something and that having areas they need to learn more about or get better at is completely normal. Children can often beat themselves up if they're not as good at something as a sibling or a friend, (or even an adult at times!) but having a growth mindset means they understand that there is always room for improvement and that's a good thing. We never stop learning, even as adults.
Some ways you can develop your child's growth mindset is by praising their efforts instead of the results, by giving honest and helpful feedback, taking the time to teach them how to get better at something, and by regularly sharing things you've learned or feedback you've received in a positive way.
4) Teach them how to set boundaries
Children at this age know the difference between right and wrong, what feels good and what doesn't. Teach them to stand by their values, even when tested and teach them the words to say when they don't feel comfortable. When children are out of their depth or in a situation they don't want to be in, if they don't know the words to use they may not feel confident speaking up.
Role play can be quite effective for this. For example, asking your child what they would say in certain situations and practicing it with them until they feel confident saying them out loud.
5) Help them set realistic goals or expectations from themselves
It's not only adults who need to set goals. Goal-setting is good for many reasons; it gives us something to focus on and when done correctly, gives us a realistic plan on how to get there. Children are dreamers and have wild imaginations so while we shouldn't quash their dreams, setting realistic expectations for their short-term plans is a good idea.
Without setting these expectations and realistic goals, you're setting the child up for disappointment and failure. If you tell them they can do anything, and then they can't, you're enabling self-doubt to creep in.
6) Teach them about perspective
A good way I like to teach children about perspective and why what other people think doesn't matter is to explain that everyone in the world is watching a different movie of life. The film playing in our heads, that we see through our eyes isn't the same for any two people and that means that just because someone sees something one way, doesn't mean it is that way.
For example, if you ask a classroom of children what the best colour is, you will never get 100% agreement. Everyone sees things differently, everyone likes different things, and that's OK. What other people think doesn't matter because that's just their perspective (or the movie they're watching).
7) Introduce self-affirmations
Self-affirmations are a great way to remind children how amazing they are. You can encourage children to write out the things they like about themselves and pin them up on their walls in their bedroom as constant reminders.
Children who are nervous going to school can also benefit from seeing those affirmations throughout the day in their lunchbox or pencil case so dropping them in extra hiding places can really help.
8) Encourage them to take time to themselves
Just like adults, children need time to unwind and relax. But this doesn't mean screentime! Children can benefit greatly from colouring in the same way that adults benefit from therapeutic colouring. It empties their mind from any worries or stresses of the day and allows them to express themselves creatively.
Journalling is also a great way for children to process their emotions from the day and pause to understand how various experiences affected them. Writing about their feelings ultimately helps them to talk about their feelings, and talking about our feelings is one of the best ways to prevent anxiety and depression. ETTCH has a guided journal designed specifically for 8-12 year olds which you can purchase here.