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Thursday
Oct102013

How To Boost the Confidence of an Insecure Tween?

A reader wrote to me this week with a question. It isn't something that I've had to handle with my kids (yet) or that I have any specific expertise on, but I do think it is an important question and know that I have really smart readers. So I asked the person who sent it if I could post it on the blog and she agreed.

Here is her question:

My son is 12.  He's got huge self doubt issues and we cannot for the life of us get him to understand that he's valuable, that he matters, that what he thinks is important and worthwhile, that he's capable, that he can trust himself.  It's draining the life out of us arguing with him about how great he is.  HELP!

This isn't something I've had to deal with as a parent, but it is certainly something that I dealt with as an insecure child. Or, in my case, I don't think that I was necessarily inherently insecure, but people certainly made me feel like I should be. As a child, I think it is incredibly important to have parents who are supportive, but I also know that when your peers are constantly putting you down or making you feel worthless, then you block out the voices from your parents. They're your parents after all. Of course they have to love you and tell you that you're wonderful, even if you're not. Or at least that is how I felt.

But I don't think it is just me. I've talked to other parents who said that their child never really believed in themselves until their strenghts or their worth was validated by someone other than their parents and their teachers. That could be another trusted adult in their life, it could be their peers (especially ones who are a bit older and that they look up to), it could be a leader or a mentor.

I guess my first course of action would be to find out where the voices of self-doubt are coming from. Are other people telling your son that he is worthless? If so, is that something that the school can address? Dealing with bullying in schools is tough, but is something I think we need to be especially vigilant of as our children grow up.

Beyond that, I think I would encourage my child to find activities that they can excel at and will make them feel accomplished. Maybe that is a team sport, but if your child is worried about letting other people down (as you mentioned in an e-mail to me), then maybe starting with an individual sport or other individual pursuit would be a better starting place. Finding a hobby that you enjoy and that makes you feel accomplished is important for people of all ages, I think.

I would also encourage my child to get involved in volunteering. There is evidence that helping others is a huge source of happiness and meaning for people. Seeing the smile on the faces of people you're helping or just knowing that you've made a difference can provide a huge boost. My kids like volunteering at the sorting table at the food bank (this reminds me that we need to set up a time to go again soon), for example. I know other people whose kids help out at homeless shelters or seniors residences.

What about you, dear readers? Do you have any suggestions on how to give this boy a confidence boost?

Image credit: + Anne + on flickr

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Reader Comments (11)

I pretty much agree with you: find activities that the child can excel in.

Looking back at my time of self-doubt, I had a big issue with just looking like a failure. However, studies have shown that it's better to encourage children to work hard at something versus making it seem like their lack of ability is innate. Sometimes though, you really aren't good at something no matter how hard you try BUT the only way to find out is to try.

I'd start out with something very safe, whatever you feel that "safe" thing/activity might be.

Best of luck!

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

I think your ideas are spot on. A feeling of mastery, or getting good at something, anything, improves self esteem. There is so much out there to try aside from sports. My boys are not sporty but the older one is a talented actor and comic and my younger one is a for real budding magician. Giving also increases self esteem. Volunteering is a great idea. I would also be aware of signs if depression though. Twelve is a difficult age and hitting puberty is a time when kids become quote vulnerable for depression. Low self esteem is often just one symptom. A quick google search will give you symptoms to look for in Tweens and teens to know if your child is depressed.

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTikun Olam

I understand the frustration and overwhelming feeling this parent may be feeling. All the suggestions sound great, but, as a parent who has dealt with this issue with my son for a while I highly recommend family counseling. Finding someone with whom to evaluate as a family his accomplishments in the weekly basis is very important, especially because it would be an impartial party.

I would also recommend looking closely at his social environments, when is your tween interacting with others? In my experience there is usually something close to them that causes this kind of insecurities, and I don't mean bullying. I mean sometimes having a friend or a family member that excels at everything could influence the way he is feeling. Although sports sounds great if his level of self stem is low I would recommend a creative art class, creative writing... something where there are guidelines but not "a wright or wrong" that way he could value his individuality at the same time that he values his peers (at least this work wonders with my child).

good luck!

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

I like your suggestion of helping others . . . also continuing to try new activities where he can not necessary excel (I'm so tired of that word) but just have fun.

This is so hard.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNina Badzin

I would suggest you support him to dig into an authentic interest, so he can develop an area of expertise. Your support will be a strong message that you think his interests and ideas (and talents) are important. He can have an area separate from school where he can work and succeed — and fail — and start building up some experiences to learn about himself and what he can do in the context of something he really cares about. Let him be powered by his own self-motivation by supporting whatever it is that authentically interests him, even if it’s something you think is silly or inconsequential. (Even if it’s something you might not immediately support — like Minecraft.)

Research (e.g., Carol Dweck) shows that you help kids more by pointing out that they’re hard workers than by saying how smart and great they are. Create a circumstance where he can start feeling good about *himself*. Make it meaningful to him – something he cares about and will actually want to expend effort on. When he has a small failure, you can help him work past it in a straightforward way without blaming himself or labeling himself. When he has a small win, he’ll really have earned it — and he’ll be able to start building real confidence in himself.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLori

There is hope! Here's a link to a similar situation & a way of working with your child to help him through this.

http://www.handinhandparenting.org/2012/06/29/support-for-teenagers/

Check out a free upcoming teleseminar that may also be of interest to you: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/product/teleseminars/

HandinHandParenting is a Godsend for parents & children alike. The tools I learned have helped me and my family parent respectfully and without coercion - and best of all, the connection we have with our kids helps us navigate the big and little challenges.

Best wishes for your family!

October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Ross

As a person who has been depressed since childhood, this situation really hit me, and it's taken me a couple of days to work up the courage to reply. The post and other commenters had fine suggestions, and this isn't meant to take away from those. But these are the things that occurred to me:

1) I was successful as a child at many activities: grades, sports, church/charity work, etc, and got plenty of accolades and positive attention where no one was bullying me or pressuring me. My depression was (and is) separate from that. It is possible to succeed and also feel hopeless and horrible.

2) "It's draining the life out of us arguing with him about how great he is" was a really awful sentence for me to read. This puts the blame on the child for negatively affecting his parents' lives, and arguing with a depressed person about how there's nothing to be depressed about is pure torture for them.

3) If I had to point to one thing that "made" me depressed, it was my parents. Even if this kid's parents are incredibly loving, nurturing, and supportive, it's still possible that their interactions with him put pressure on him in ways they don't realize.

I definitely suggest SOLO professional help for the kid (not just family therapy). Maybe there's a troubling situation at school that can be averted, and maybe some more enjoyable activities will help him out, but it's also possible that a serious depression is brewing, and that should be looked into ASAP.

For the parents, I highly recommend looking into Nonviolent Communication, which (in part) helps train you to respond to someone's negative feelings without blame, pressure, "fixing", minimizing, etc, as well as process your own negative reactions. There are some NVC classes and books that specifically address parent/child relationships.

October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIssa Waters

It's draining the life out of us arguing with him about how great he is.

So don't argue. LISTEN. It may be that part of his self-doubt is coming from your constantly telling him that his feelings are wrong and his assessment of himself is wrong. I understand that you want to help him acknowledge positive things about himself, but when you reach the point that you feel you're arguing about it and you are tired of doing so, that's too much.

I was a shy child who was often bullied. Each of my parents had had this same experience in their own ways. One of the best ways they responded to my hurt feelings was simply by saying things like, "That really hurts!" and, "It's hard to feel so helpless," and, "Oh, I've had times like that too; I know just what you mean," and, "Sometimes it just feels like nothing you do comes out right." Things like this have to be said in an empathetic tone (if they come across as dismissive, it's awful) and ideally accompanied with a hug, invitation to hang out for a nice cup of cocoa together, etc.

Sometimes being allowed to express your negative feelings and feel heard gets those dark icky feelings spread out in the fresh air, where they lose some of their power, and then there is room to pay attention to other ideas.

October 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter'Becca

In case it's helpful, from personal experience, I would be careful of overpraising. If I didn't feel I was achieving my best or what I hoped to (i.e. I thought I could do better), the more my mother praised my current performance or abilities, the more I just devalued her opinion. Her praise almost sent the message that I couldn't or didn't need to do better, and devalued my opinion of myself. Instead of praising him, I would state your confidence in his ability to rise to the occasion, whatever that maybe. If he's willing to open up, you can calmly get him talking about what he'd like to do better (not telling him how to fix it though). While pursuing new activities might help, it sounds like there might be something in particular he'd like to change.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLMC

"draining the life out of us arguing..." -- You express your own feelings of helplessness, but indeed as other posters note, "arguing" and the whole focus on praise about being "great" is perhaps not what is needed. Listening actively, being there even in quiet moments, not crowding but being available, accepting all feelings and not judging some feelings -- these can be helpful. Taking the pressure off of performance and mastery. The volunteering suggestion is good, but also perhaps unplugging, simplifying routines (is he overscheduled? are his siblings heavily scheduled and him not -- then seeking balance) and allowing time for creative unstructured play outdoors with a few kids. Time to be a child still, as well as time to grow up. Also, my sister shared this one with me -- having the parent spend a special one-on-one time with the child doing an activity of his choice (not necessarily ambitious activity either). This kind of activity provides opportunities for a tween to open up.

October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

"draining the life out of us arguing..." -- You express your own feelings of helplessness, but indeed as other posters note, "arguing" and the whole focus on praise about being "great" is perhaps not what is needed. Listening actively, being there even in quiet moments, not crowding but being available, accepting all feelings and not judging some feelings -- these can be helpful. Taking the pressure off of performance and mastery. The volunteering suggestion is good, but also perhaps unplugging, simplifying routines (is he overscheduled? are his siblings heavily scheduled and him not -- then seeking balance) and allowing time for creative unstructured play outdoors with a few kids. Time to be a child still, as well as time to grow up. Also, my sister shared this one with me -- having the parent spend a special one-on-one time with the child doing an activity of his choice (not necessarily ambitious activity either). This kind of activity provides opportunities for a tween to open up.

October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

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