Helping Children With Low Self-Confidence

A lack of confidence can manifest in many different – and often unexpected – ways in children. At one extreme there’s the quiet, shy child who doesn’t take risks; at the other, there’s the child with challenging behaviour who doesn’t listen, has no attention span and tends to sabotage activities. It’s fairly easy to spot the first and to identify underlying confidence issues, but it can be harder with the second. These disruptive children may be labelled as ‘naughty’, even though their behaviour is an act of bravado, often masking an underlying confidence deficit and a lack of self-worth. 

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Start as you mean to go on

The early months of life build the foundations on which confidence is built throughout the rest of the child’s life, and the foundations will be strong ones if the child is raised with secure attachments to her caregivers. When a child has a secure base to which she can return, she will tend to feel safe enough to explore the world increasingly independently. 

There is only one person who can develop confidence – the child herself. All we can do is to provide an environment in which it can be nurtured. If a child is not confident in new situations, forcing her into more of them will only serve to undermine her confidence. If she is fearful of certain activities or environments, ‘throwing her in at the deep end’ will invariably lead to sinking and damage to her confidence, rather than swimming. A key role for parents is to provide an environment in which the child feels safe and secure, and to provide a relationship that fosters confidence by allowing as much of an attachment as the child needs. Allow yourself to be led by your child. If you watch and listen closely, she will show the pace at which she is able to work. Progress can be slow initially, and you may question whether your child-led pace is actually hindering the child rather than helping. The child may appear to regress and seemingly lose confidence. This is in fact a good sign, as it’s showing that she’s trying to fulfil any unmet needs in order to be able to move forwards. Keep reminding yourself that she is behaving this way for a reason, and never be tempted to force her to do anything that she isn’t ready for.

Mistakes are good

When the child is ready to try something new, or perhaps re-try something she has not yet mastered, it’s important to allow her to make mistakes. It might be tempting to help the child by instructing her, or finishing tasks that are frustrating her, but these can both serve to undermine confidence. Here, the role of the parent is to sit with the child’s frustration and provide her with a sense of self-belief. If she is struggling to complete a jigsaw puzzle, then the best way to foster her confidence is to contain her frustration by telling her that jigsaws can be hard, but if she keeps trying, you are sure she’ll do it in time. It’s important that children are allowed to make mistakes, from falling over when learning to walk, to not being able to fit a shape in the shape sorter. These mistakes are inevitable and an important lesson for children to learn in their urge for mastery. It is when they successfully navigate these problems without our input that their confidence in themselves will start to build.

Intrinsic motivation

What should you do, then, when the child achieves something she has previously found difficult? Conventional wisdom would be to reward her handsomely, with verbal praise and ‘well done’ stickers. Rewards such as these, however, can, ironically undermine confidence. If the child is intrinsically motivated to do something – that is, if she is internally driven to do something for no reason other than because she wants to – research shows that she is more likely to be successful. Psychologists have shown if she is rewarded for the completed task, she will actually be less likely to complete it in the future. Praise and stickers foster extrinsic motivation – they encourage the child to do something to get a reward, meaning that the child feels good because of the reward, not because of herself. If we want to encourage confidence, the rewards should always be internal ones. See HERE for more on the problems with stickers and rewards. A sense of mastery, pride, achievement and a sense of self-worth. Instead of ‘Good girl’ or ‘Well done’, it’s better to ask the child “You did it – how do you feel?” or “Do you feel proud of yourself now?” See HERE for more on effective praise.

Don’t focus on the results

On a similar note, it’s also important to not be results-focused. A child who has unsuccessfully tried to do her coat buttons up every day for three months is, in many ways, more of an achiever than the child who learnt to do it after only two days. The first child has been dedicated to the task at hand, which is deserving of recognition. Praising children for something they find easy can actually undermine their confidence, especially when they eventually try something more difficult and find that the praise does not flow as it did before. Focusing on their efforts is much more productive. “I can see you’re working so hard on those buttons – they are tricky aren’t they? You’re so determined though, I know you’ll do it soon.”  

As a parent, you are a role model for your children. They will look to you to decide how to behave and react in certain situations. It is therefore important that you keep confidence in yourself. If you fail at something, don’t say, “Oh, I’m so stupid”. Instead, say “I’ve tried so hard to do this. I’m sure I’ll do it one day soon, but today isn’t the day.” Your children need to see you try and fail as much as they need to see you succeed. They need to know that you make mistakes, just like them, and they need to see you be easy on yourself when you do. In many ways, working to raise children’s confidence is as much about raising your own as it is theirs!

Lay the foundations

10 ways to boost a child’s confidence…

1. Allow them to make mistakes
Don’t complete a task they are finding hard for them

2. Avoid rewarding achievements
Instead, focus on how the child feels about them

3. Focus on the effort
– not the achievement

4. Allow them to initiate and lead play
The sense of control will boost their confidence

5. Give as much one-to-one time as possible
Building attachments is vital

6. Help them to realise that nobody is perfect
Making mistakes is part of everyday life.

7. Recognise all personalities are different
Introverts can often be mistaken as having low self-confidence.

8. Lose the labels 
There is no such thing as ‘clumsy, ‘naughty’, ‘clever’ or ‘good’.

9. Be careful about self-image
– yours and theirs.

10. Be a good role model

Get confident yourself!

For more on children with low self-confidence and low self-esteem and how this effects their behaviour (and how you can help) see my Gentle Discipline Book (available in the UKUSACanada and rest of the world).


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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