Raising Confident Teens and Tweens
Ask kindergartners or first-graders what they’re good at, and many will easily list off the skills or qualities that make them great. A 5-year-old might tell you he’s the fastest runner in his class, even if he’s — well — not.
But as children grow older their inflated confidence begins to slide, says Andrea Hussong, director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Developmental Science and a professor of psychology. Tweens and early teens are especially susceptible to bouts of low confidence for multiple reasons.
In addition to navigating biological changes and new social landscapes, adolescents are naturally egocentric, says Kristen Wynns, a child psychologist and owner of Wynns Family Psychology in Cary. This can make them “literally feel like there’s a spotlight on them and that everyone’s looking at them,” Wynns says. “So that’s part of what makes them more vulnerable to self-esteem issues or self-confidence issues.”
This perceived attention might make an adolescent feel as if her peers are judging everything from her appearance to her family’s behavior.
Additionally, adolescents make more social comparisons, especially with their peers. “There’s a lot of competition and comparison going on in those years,” Hussong says, which may cause a dip in their confidence. That 5-year-old in the example above might now, as a tween or teen, say “‘Hmm, I’m not the fastest runner in the class. If I’m not that, who am I?’” Hussong explains.
The Confidence Effect
Having confidence in his or her actions and behaviors can “enhance” a child’s self-esteem and vice versa — so a higher self-esteem can lead to higher confidence, Hussong says.
Chapel Hill mother of two Katy Gilliam notices how her 9- and 11-year-olds’ confidence levels affect them. “When their confidence is high, I believe that it helps all aspects of their lives. It helps them feel balanced and able to handle everyday expectations and stressors,” she says. “When their confidence is off, then it is a domino effect to how they handle their lives.”
Juliellen Simpson-Vos, mother of a 12-year-old daughter in Durham and executive director of Girls on the Run in the Triangle, a program that encourages running as a way to inspire confidence and healthy habits, says confidence helps a tween or teen feel OK with who they are. “Strong confidence and positive self-esteem provide courage to be the person you were meant to be in this world,” she says. “At Girls on the Run, we say confidence is what sparks girls to activate their limitless potential.”
How to Boost Your Child’s Confidence
Hussong says it’s natural for your child’s confidence to ebb and flow during the tween and teen years. Your interactions, however, can make a difference. Here are some tips:
- Don’t forego physical affection. True, your child has probably outgrown some demonstrations of physical affection. But it’s still key when it comes to confidence. “Sometimes parents forget how important that is for kids’ self-esteem, to be hugged,” Wynns says. “Even pats on the shoulder or high fives are really important — to still have the physical affection.”
- Monitor media messages. Whether they see them on TV, online or on a friend’s Instagram feed, kids are bombarded with images and messages that can influence their confidence levels, Wynns says. Keep a watchful eye on your child’s interaction with screens of all sizes. Also, Wynns reminds teens and parents that online friends present an idealistic portrait of their lives on social media — not real life. In fact, research has shown that comparing one’s own life to the idealistic narratives others present on Facebook can foster low self-esteem.
- Let tweens and teens solve their own problems. Hussong encourages parents to help their children foster a sense of agency — a belief that they have what they need to make decisions about their own lives — in order to promote healthy self-esteem. Within reason, let your tween or teen find solutions for her problems, no matter how badly you want to jump in and save the day. Listen and guide her as she addresses the problem, rather than offering a quick fix to ease the pain. Tackling dilemmas can empower your tween or teen.
- Ask a professional for help if you suspect a larger problem. Low confidence alone is not a warning sign of a problem, Hussong explains, since “[teens are] trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in.” But if you suspect depression or if your teen’s attitude veers toward self-loathing or self-hatred, take heed. Wynns advises parents to watch out for a teen who cries easily, retreats from family and friends, exhibits changes in sleep or appetite, or expresses negative or semi-suicidal thoughts. Tweens and teens in less extreme situations can also benefit from professional help.
- Help tweens and teens realize where they shine. “Help your kids find their niche,” Wynns says. “Take note of where your child seems to excel and encourage them to further develop that.” Gilliam’s children demonstrate the relationship between finding a niche and confidence. “My daughter is in competitive gymnastics, which has helped build confidence through her strength training and support of coaches and teammates. My son is involved in musical theater, which also supports and builds his self-confidence,” she explains.
- Plan how you praise. Avoid empty praise. “We definitely know that praising everything can backfire, because then kids start to doubt the sincerity behind the praise,” Wynns explains. Research shows that exaggerated praise can intimidate children with low self-esteem, potentially preventing them from trying for fear of failing, and that the best practice for praise is to focus on the process rather than the results. Praise your child’s hard work in studying for a test rather than the good grade he brings home, or praise specific behaviors. “Being able to be specific about that feedback helps them to see what they’re doing well and gives them something to build on,” Hussong says.
- Encourage giving back. Volunteering or helping around the house can be a boon for your child’s self-esteem. “There’s a definite link between volunteering and giving back and your mood,” Wynns says. “If you’re doing for others and making a contribution to your family or school or society, it ends up helping you feel better, as far as your mood goes, but also to feel better about yourself.”
Laura Lacy is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill.