Self-esteem comes from feeling good about ourselves and understanding what we’re good at and ultimately what makes us unique. The most effective way of achieving long-lasting change in a child’s level of confidence and behaviour is by increasing their internal motivation and helping them develop a ‘growth mindset’, and here are 6 top tips to help you do exactly that:
- Help them discover their individuality
The first step is to help them identify their unique skills, by allowing them to experiment with different activities so that they can find things they enjoy and that they ‘naturally’ have more facility/aptitude at. This will help them enjoy the process of learning and improving, and they will be less likely to give up in the face of difficulty because they enjoy the activity. So for example, you could sit down with them and make a list of what they really enjoy and what they find easy: e.g. being good at a sport (football, gymnastics etc.). As they might not have tried some activities yet, you could also suggest that they try things such as drama, dancing or singing as such activities help children discover their individuality and are ideal to show children the progress that they can make when they practice an activity regularly.
- Develop perseverance by finding things that will challenge them
Self-esteem also comes from struggle and overcoming adversity. It’s important that our children don’t only do things that come easily to them and that they find (age-appropriate) challenges that they can overcome. It is therefore essential to allow children to struggle when facing challenges as this gives them the opportunity to develop perseverance, persistence and grit, which are key skills to develop an overall resilience in life.
When they encounter challenges, rather than ‘saving them’ by intervening, we can help them by suggesting alternatives strategies to achieve what they are trying to do. You should start by giving your child empathy for their difficulty or feeling (e.g. “You seem to have really struggled with your maths homework”). Then you can help them find strategies to make things less challenging – for example, by ‘chunking’ things, i.e. divide bigger challenges into smaller parts to make them more achievable.
- Celebrate challenges and mistakes
To further develop resilience, children need to feel that it’s normal and important to encounter challenges and to make mistakes as ultimately they will learn from them. One way to do this is to help them understand that FAIL can be thought of as a ‘First Attempt In Learning’ and that taking action and failing would yield less regret than failing to try in the first place.
In order to reduce the feeling of failure or not being ‘good enough’ in a child, we need to use positive language and encourage them to think logically about the challenge they have encountered or the mistake they have made. For example, if we feel that there is room for improvement in something they have done, instead of directly giving them ‘constructive criticism’, which will often be experienced negatively, try asking them: “Are you happy with the result?” (as this allows our children to tell us what they would like to improve) or “What could you do better next time?”.
- Make it about them
One of the keys to self-esteem is to have a realistic view of ourselves and self-evaluation is crucial to achieving this. As explained in the point above, to develop your child’s self-evaluation skills, rather than take the lead by giving them your evaluation of their work, try asking them questions instead. This will give them an opportunity to self-evaluate and will help to empower them and make them more responsible for the solutions they decide to implement to improve things.
Because although it’s only natural to want to shower our children with praise when they do something that makes us feel proud, this can actually have a detrimental effect on a child’s confidence and self-esteem. Rather than feeling boosted by our praise, our children start to feel pressured to live up to our high expectations of them. And then suddenly every activity they take part in or task they take on becomes about keeping us happy, and without even realising it we have made their achievements about us rather than them. So for example, instead of “I’m so proud of you”, try “You must be so proud of yourself?”, or instead of “You’re so good at this!”, try “You must be so happy to have managed to do this?”.
It’s also important to try to ensure that our positives outweigh the negatives so that we fill our children’s ‘I’m capable’ account instead of filling the ‘I’m a failure’ account. To do so, focus on their uniqueness rather than on their weaknesses. To achieve this, reduce criticism and identify the good things in something that your child has done. You can ask them to explain the reason for their success (usually the effort that they’ve put into it). And if you feel that there is room for improvement, then simply add: “Are you happy with the result?”, (as this allows children to tell us what they would like to improve) or “What could you do better next time?”.
- Replace ‘evaluative’ praise with ‘process’ praise
Praising our children with general statements such as “This is great!” or “You’re so clever!” can backfire because as soon as they spot that we are so hopelessly biased that we will admire just about everything they do, our children start to doubt the sincerity of our praise. In the long-term, this type of ‘evaluative’ praise is also detrimental because it can create a ‘fixed mindset’ in our children. When a child has a fixed mindset, they believe that their intelligence and abilities are ‘set in stone’, and that no amount of effort or practice is ever going to change their level of ability. As a result, they are reluctant to do anything that they aren’t ‘naturally’ talented at. So our well-meaning words of encouragement and reassurance have little effect in convincing them otherwise because they simply don’t believe what we are telling them. The other issue is that if we tell a child that they are smart, they may feel that they have to live up to this ‘label’ all the time, and will start to avoid taking on new challenges and doing anything that may call their level of intelligence into question, for fear of disappointing us. as they will be afraid not to meet our expectations (and theirs as they may be convinced by what we tell them) and they can therefore become afraid of taking on new challenges ..
It is therefore much more effective to focus on strategy and the process of learning rather than the outcome, and praise the steps a child takes as this shows them that each step is a necessary part of achieving something. So rather than praising our children for getting a high grade or winning at a game or sports match it’s much more effective to praise them for the effort they have put in and the progress they have made. For example, “I can see by your playing the piano how much you have practiced”. Or “You know your times tables by heart, I can see that you have put a lot of effort into learning this”. And when they ask for your opinion on something they’ve done, instead of saying “Wow, this is so beautiful!”, try asking them a question, “How did you do this part?”. Or simply use descriptive praise by describing what you see, “Wow the chicken in your drawing looks so lifelike!”.
- Lead by example
For children to develop a growth mindset, the whole household should ideally be setting a good example as children typically imitate their parents and their mindset. So it’s important that we demonstrate our growth mindset to our children as often as possible, and try to catch ourselves when we are not modelling the best example.
Ideally, we should find as many opportunities as possible to demonstrate a positive attitude, and show our children that even during tough times we’re always going to strive to adopt the ‘glass half full’ perspective. By adopting this attitude, we are demonstrating to our children that there are positives to be found in any mistake or challenge. So, if we have a tendency to use negative language “I’m not any good at this” or “This is so difficult”, we should try to replace them with more growth-oriented statements such as: “I’m not as good as I’d like to be at this, I need to practice more”.
You can find more tips and information on how to nurture self-esteem in children in our eBook Raising Confident Kids, which is available now on Amazon.