Bringing Confidence to the Start of a New School Year

As parents, we want our children to believe in themselves. A sense of appropriate confidence or self efficacy, the belief that one can handle what might come his or her way, makes navigating life’s inevitable challenges not only easier, but more fun and exciting. On the other hand, a lack of confidence or a poor sense of self-efficacy might negatively affect academic and social performance and may be associated with performance and/or social anxiety. So, how might we parents nurture a sense of appropriate confidence and self-efficacy in our children?

1. We have to be comfortable with the struggle which leads to success. It is often difficult to watch our children struggle, however. Pain and frustration often accompany struggle, and we may be tempted to alleviate these negative emotions. But when success is the sweet outcome of struggle, confidence is built and a sense of self efficacy is learned. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes about the association between childhood depression and empty praise in his book, The Optimistic Child. He stresses the importance of allowing our children to work hard and sometimes struggle in their pursuit of goals in order to instill a sense of confidence and self-efficacy. He believed that the epidemic of childhood depression was fueled by adults’ empty praise. Even when struggle leads to failure, confidence can be built when we learn from the experience and we understand that best effort was put forth.

2. Provide support and intervene when appropriate. We have to be sensitive to our children’s levels of frustration and provide support and even intervene if frustration becomes too great or if a problem warrants adult intervention. If we consider a number line from 1-10, we would certainly want to provide support if frustration reaches a number greater than 8 in intensity. Or, if, for example, a young child has an issue with a bully and has tried to manage it on his/her own to no avail, perhaps it is time to intervene.

3. Listen to our children’s fears and doubts before giving solutions and empty praise and help them problem solve. It would be important to differentiate a lack of confidence from occasional self-doubt. It is not unusual for new situations to feel scary for all of us. Self-doubt can lead to a growth experience or become a growth blocker. Understanding where the self-doubt is coming from and figuring out how to navigate a difficult or novel situation will more likely stretch than stifle our children.

4. As we listen, help our children figure out if there are indeed new skills that need to be learned and provide opportunities to learn them. For example, if a child is anxious about joining a tennis team at his new school because he feels he has less experience than his new teammates, perhaps some private lessons will bolster his confidence.

5. Validate our children’s feelings while helping them approach what they fear they can’t do. Help them understand that trying new things or starting a new school year can be scary. But don’t let them use their feelings as an excuse to avoid what they don’t think they can do.

6. Remind our children of times they were successful in similar situations.

7. Teach our children to visualize a successful outcome. Often when we lack confidence or fear a certain situation we are imagining failure or embarrassment. We can teach our children to be in control of their imagination by learning to “change the channel on their imagination”. The pictures in our mind and the words we say to ourselves can greatly influence what we feel. We can learn to visualize positive pictures and speak positively about ourselves to nurture confidence and a sense of self-efficacy.

8. Model confidence and managing self-doubt. Believe in ourselves as parents and know that self-doubt is normal for us too. When we doubt ourselves, we can read and talk to our health care professionals when needed. Once we have more information, we can work on trusting ourselves and doing the best we can.

Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist