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Helping kids build confidence Children's Wisconsin

8 ways to empower kids and help them build confidence as they grow

One constant we can rely on, especially with our kids, is change. Kids are always changing and developing, and so is the world around them. As young kids are ready, we rejoice as we see them start taking little baby steps out into the world. When kids reach adolescence, those smaller steps expand and become bigger leaps as they have increasing independence and desire to explore and discover.

When kids are faced with change, they can experience higher levels of self-doubt and insecurity. As a parent, this may be hard to watch. However, just because your child feels anxious does not mean you need to jump in right away. In fact, doing so may negatively impact your child's ability to develop confidence. 

Though it's hard to watch our kids’ struggle when they're dealing with uncomfortable situations, these experiences support essential development and growth. As parents, we have an important role to play. We are responsible for providing encouragement and validation. The question we often end up asking ourselves is, “How do I do that?”

Below we explore some ways you can support your child as they learn to successfully navigate their world in healthy, age appropriate ways with growing confidence. 

1. When your child comes to you with an issue, respond — don't react

When our kids come to us with issues, it's our desire as adults to jump in and fix things. Instead of taking over, it is important that we let them try to find solutions and sit with them while they work things out. Though it's tough to watch them be uncomfortable, this discomfort is a normal part of life and important as they grow and develop healthy coping skills. 

If your child approaches you with an issue or concern, it's natural to want to begin proposing solutions or telling them, "It's going to be okay." But instead of solving and assuring things will “be okay” (which, frankly, they may not be for a little bit and that’s normal too), hold space for your child. Let them express what they're feeling and work through the issue. Respond empathetically, saying, "I'm really glad you told me that," or, "That must be really hard for you." 

Ask questions, like, "Can you tell me what happened?" and reflect what you are hearing to make sure you understand what they are sharing with you. It may also be a time to sit quietly with them. Sometimes, what your child needs most is a listening ear as they process their worries. 

Tip: If it's hard for your child to sit and talk, find something you can do together that is distracting, like making dinner or running an errand. This can create more private space to communicate. It can also may make the conversation less intense and help your child feel more comfortable opening up. 

2. Help your child self-solve problems by encouraging critical thinking 

Allowing your child to process the issue and solve problems on their own can help them resolve new situations in the future. Instead of telling your child how to solve the problem, gently encourage some critical thinking and perspective-taking. You can do this by applying the situation to people who are safe for them to think about and that they can relate to as peers, like friends, neighbors or family members. 

Ask your child, "What advice would you give ____ if that happened to her?" or "What if _____ came and told you this? What would you say to her?" Oftentimes kids can see other people more clearly than they can see themselves. By engaging them in processing issues through the lens of someone close to them, you can help them to find solutions to the issues they're facing. 

3. Expose your child to new activities and allow them to try different things

To give kids practice with navigating new situations, it's important to provide some opportunities for exposure to new experiences and new situations. (But don't feel like you need to sign your kid up for 18 different activities.) 

Studies show that moderate levels of anxiety — like those we feel when we are navigating a new experience — allow us as human beings to engage with our environment in healthy ways. These feelings keep us safe and allow us to exercise our judgment. Exposure to healthy anxiety can help your child build resilience and more effectively handle new experiences they face in the future. (However, there may be times when it’s okay to let your child quit, as a colleague outlines in this blog post.)

4. Don't overpraise successes 

While compliments and praise can give a child confidence, too much praise can also hinder their ability to develop self-confidence. If you see something your kid is doing well, absolutely give them a compliment. But also be sure to focus on the steps they took and their efforts they made. Say, "How do you think that turned out?" or "Tell me about how you did that," and keep the focus on their own reactions to their success. Rather than showering them with praise, try to hold space for them to emote and share their own satisfaction with you. They need to be able to hear their own voice saying, “I did this well!” and, “I did okay.” 

5. Normalize mistakes

Mistakes are part of growth, too, and normalizing mistakes can lessen the worry about making mistakes in the future. If there's an error, allow your child to address it (as needed), then frame that this was one moment/choice and move on. Then, genuinely move on. Another great way to normalize mistakes is by modeling this for ourselves as parents, too. So much of parenting is leading by example. If we can’t show a bit of vulnerability or accept something being less than perfect sometimes, how can we expect our kids to? 

6. Keep up routines

Life can get busy. It's important to hold scheduled time for things like family dinner, trips in the car, movie nights, etc. so your child has reliable times they can access you. Keep a baseline of regular connection with your child that isn't about something being wrong or about celebrating. Life is full of quiet moments and daily tasks. Having this ongoing thread of connection allows you to observe any changes in behavior and be there for your child when something seems off. 

7. Create opportunities for your child to connect with other adults 

Being involved in activities has the added benefit of bringing other trusted adults and role models into your child's life. A community of adults surrounding your child is important because it creates a safety net. If your child isn't comfortable coming to you or if they're hiding struggles from you, a coach or music teacher might pick up on them and/or serve as an added source of support. 

8. Recognize signs that more support is needed 

A healthy level of anxiety is very normal. If you're noticing significant changes in how your child or teen interacts with the world, they may need more support. Possible signs your child may be struggling to cope and need some additional supports include:

  • Regular occurrences of observed high anxiety or worry

  • Avoidance of activities

  • Restlessness or lack of focus

  • Irritability

  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits

  • “Putting on a show” and being performative in expression in some way (people pleasing or constant positivity denying other feelings)

If you ever have questions about how to support your child, you can ask your child's primary care provider or reach out to the behavioral health consultant in your primary care provider's office.