I bet if I asked you if you could remember a time when you felt your confidence shatter, you’d be able to do it immediately.
It might have been caused by a casual but cutting remark from a child in the playground. Perhaps you were singled out and shamed by a displeased parent or teacher. Maybe it was after something went terribly wrong and there was nobody around to dust you off and tell you that you were loved and worthy despite the bad outcome. Those experiences stay with us, don’t they?
So, what if I told you that you are now in the perfect position to be that advocate for a child or young person?
We can’t protect children from disappointment, judgement or pain, although I know that we all wish we could. However, we can help them build a layer of resilience that will prevent those negative experiences damaging their sense of self.
What can I do?
Here are three ways in which you can help children improve their confidence.
- build them up
- wrap them up
- skill them up
Build them up
The best thing we can do as adults is offer children unconditional love. In short, this means that whatever they accomplish and however they act, we love them the same regardless.
Now this doesn’t mean that we must condone anti-social behaviours or stop encouraging them to make progress and learn. We can still do these things. The key difference is letting them know that you love and value them even when you don’t like their behaviour.
Make them certain that you are just as proud of them when they fail as you are when they succeed, that they are just as dazzling to you when they are picking worms out of the ground as when they are collecting certificates from school.
If you praise them for the person they are, instead of focusing on the things they have done, you will instil a secure inner confidence. So rather than saying: ‘Wow that’s a really great score for that maths test,’ say: ‘I really admire your perseverance this week.’ The truth of that comment will then remain whatever next week’s test score.
Children are constantly comparing themselves and when they feel like they don’t measure up, their self-confidence can begin to erode. Support children by noticing and celebrating their strengths of character. Tell them that they are kind and brave and tenacious rather than smart or pretty or the best. When the focus is on character over accomplishments, they will feel more robust in a world that does compare and reward children for things that can be measured.
Wrap them up
There are times when children are going to get hurt and this is hard to witness. We want to mop up their tears and make everything better. However, there can be the temptation to do this too quickly, to dismiss the harmful comment or the struggle they have had. We might find ourselves saying: ‘Well that person was stupid to say that,’ or ‘It was a rubbish competition anyway,’ thinking we are relieving their pain when we are, in fact, dismissing it.
Instead, give children the space to sit with their disappointment, hurt or sadness. Allow them to talk about it, cry or be furious about what they have experienced. Be that safe space for them to explore their feelings and let them know that all those feelings are valid and you, as an adult and role model, experience them too.
If you are angry about what has happened to them, tell them. If their fears are making you feel anxious, let them know and be that safe person to hold and support your joint feelings together.
Children who are given the opportunity to explore their feelings are less likely to internalise them and label themselves negatively. So, if a child is feeling ashamed, help them understand that the feeling of shame doesn’t make them shameful. If they are feeling angry, that doesn’t mean that vengeance is the best way to deal with it.
Acknowledge their feelings and when they begin to settle, ask them how they would like to deal with their situation and then support them. Be their friend not their security guard.
Skill them up
Children are quick learners so teach them this phrase: Feelings are not facts.
Help them understand and notice that other people behave in different ways when they are feeling different emotions.
If someone has had a good week, including plenty of rest and the opportunity to do things they enjoy, they are likely to be more:
Alternatively, after a bad week, if a person is unusually stressed or anxious about something, they are more likely to be:
- short tempered
Help children recognise these shifts in themselves. So next time someone is critical or snappy around them, they will begin to ask themselves, ‘What is going on for that person?’ and will be less likely to blame themselves.
As adults we are in a good position to model this. If you lose your temper, explain to a child that you were feeling tired, for example. Acknowledge that you lacked patience and that you behaved more angrily than you would have liked. Apologise if they have been hurt in the process.
If children start to see their role models taking accountability for their behaviours, they will start to be more accountable for their own. All humans are fallible, even adults. When children are able to separate themselves from negative experiences, their confidence will be more robust.
We can make a real difference to the lives of young people and we don’t even need to be perfect ourselves to do it. How cool is that?