Even the most resilient of children will have dips in their confidence. How can we keep their “confidence jar” topped up, so they have plenty of reserves when someone or something threatens to empty the jar? Here are my four top tips for building confidence in teenagers and younger children.
The tips I will outline are as follows:
- Find their values.
- Model optimism
- Find healthy role models
- Embrace differences
1. Find Their Values
Young people who have strong values and are guided by these in everyday life are happier and more satisfied than those who don’t. Understanding and living by your values creates meaning and purpose in life. Some children live life trying to be like others or behaving a certain way because they feel they should. This can lead to a sense of emptiness that I believe is linked to poor mental well-being.
What’s important to you as a family?
What’s important to your child?
If you don’t know the answers, spend some time over the next few days and weeks reflecting. Once you have a key set of values, encourage your child to do something small each day that helps them live in accordance with their values. For example, if fairness and justice are important to them, they could aim to be kind to someone in school who has been marginalised or bullied, or contribute their views in a discussion about justice in a PSHE or religious studies lesson.
I have written an article about why values are so important for mental health and building confidence in teenagers/children, which will give you more insight into this under-valued aspect of well-being. Request a free electronic set of my values cards (the tool I use to help young people identify their values) by emailing me: email@example.com.
If your child finds it hard to open up to you, read my article called When Your Child Won’t (Or Can’t) Talk About Their Feelings. You’ll find it really helpful!
2. Model Optimism
Optimism is healthy. You may have heard of something called “toxic positivity”, which is unhelpful. Toxic positivity is the denial or invalidation of a range of feelings, in favour of a “think positive and stop complaining” approach. You can read more about it here. Optimism and toxic positivity are very different.
As this article explains, optimists tends to engage in healthier behaviours which benefit their mental health. For example, optimists focus more on the problem itself rather than on managing emotions that may result from the problem, and are less likely to simply ignore the problem. Optimists have a greater sense of control and ownership, and I think this is vital when growing up. Incidentally, optimists also live longer and have a better quality of life!
A tip for modelling optimism is to try to look at a problem or difficulty from a variety of angles, before choosing how to respond. For instance, if a child’s school residential trip is cancelled, it is valid and understandable that they will be upset. However, after a few days you could help them model new ways of looking at the situation, such as: “We will be able to use the money to take you on a family holiday instead”.
3. Find Healthy Role Models
We learn about who we want to be by observing others. For many young people, famous people serve as role models. But pay attention to who your child admires and follows. Are the people your child admires sending out healthy messages? Do the messages build your child up, e.g. embrace differences, be kind or try to make a difference in the world? Or are they focused on appearance or wealth or a superficial image that lacks any substance? It may sound judgmental but public figures, especially celebrities, are so powerful these days and they can have a massive influence on children’s self-image and confidence.
Encourage open debate about the people your child admires. The gymnast Simone Biles is a great role model because she is hard-working, a great team player, and open about her mental health. The environmentalist Greta Thunberg has strong and unwavering values and does not allow others’ opinions of her to sway her. Marcus Rashford is not only a famous footballer but campaigns for children and families living in poverty. It’s healthy for your child to have a clear view on why they follow or like someone.
How are healthy role models related to building confidence in teenagers and children? They contribute to a congruent sense of identity in the child, of “this is who I am and this is who I admire”. This congruence builds their confidence. It helps them make clear decisions about their lives in a way which fits with their values.
4. Embrace Differences
It is safer to be one of the crowd. You are much less likely to risk rejection. Many young people feel they must hide even tiny differences or aspects of themselves that stand out. This can lead to a confused sense of self and strong feelings of shame at the “hidden” parts. Confidence is likely to nose-dive because the young person doesn’t have a strong sense of who they are. They probably believe that if they were to “be themselves”, they could be rejected.
Before a recent party my teenage daughter must have tried on about 20 outfits. She wasn’t sure how dressy or casual everyone else’s outfits would be. Her mission was not to stand out. So in the end she chose a plain black outfit, instead of her favourite one, which made me sad. It’s tough. We are going against the grain but we must try to help young people celebrate differences. Many young celebrities are now speaking out about this, which may make it easier. What can we do to help our children embrace their differences?
- Name them with pride. E.g. you think differently to other people and that is fantastic. Or: You are a strong and athletic young woman and it doesn’t matter that you have a different body shape to your friends.
- Encourage role models who embrace difference.
- Encourage your child to nurture friendships with others who celebrate difference rather than act like sheep.
If you have a teen and you want to support their emerging independence whilst ensuring their safety and wellbeing, here’s a guide to Balancing Safety and Independence For Your Tween.
If your teen is also showing attention seeking behaviour which might be related to insecurity or low confidence, read our article: Is Attention Seeking Behaviour In Teens Normal?
Do you want to help your teenager achieve their goals? Our article: SMART Goals for Teens: Help your Teen to Happiness and Success will help you.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. She is a mum to two teenage children.
Learn More About Building Confidence in Teenagers and Children
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