How can I help my child be more confident?

shy girlQUESTION: I have a six-year-old girl who has been described as being both quiet and sensitive at school. She tends to be a perfectionist in things that she does and hates being wrong. She seems to lack confidence in her ability to do things. I would describe her as never entering into a competition if she feels she may fail and that includes social relationships. I worry that she might be missing out as a result. She is a complex character and I am wondering how I can help her cope with these feelings?

Lots of children have a sensitive or reserved personality which makes them more cautious in certain situations, whether this is meeting other children socially or trying out new activities. Sometimes this represents a desire to get things right first time or a perfectionist streak to their personality. This is in stark contrast to other children, who might be forward in social situations or who are quick to throw themselves into new activities without worrying whether they get things wrong.

Of course, each personality type has its strengths and weaknesses. Children who are forward can be perceived as socially confident, but they can be also seen as impulsive and more likely to “put their foot in it”. Equally, more reserved children can be perceived as being thoughtful and sensitive, but there is the danger that their reserve will cause them to miss out on opportunities.

As a parent, the key is to be tuned into and to understand your child’s personality. You want to appreciate and enjoy their strengths while being compassionate and supportive of their weaknesses. The goal is to provide opportunities that allow their personalities to shine, while protecting them from stressful situations that might too difficult for them. At the heart of this is providing your children with acceptance and love, whatever their personality might be.

Sometimes, this is harder than it seems especially if your own personality as a parent is very different from your child, which can make it harder for you to understand his/her behaviour or to appreciate his/her natural strengths. Alternatively, it can be hard if you have a very similar personality to your child’s and this caused you problems growing up (for example, if you remember struggling socially on account of being reserved). Being self-aware as a parent about the source of your feelings is very important in thinking how best to respond.

How you respond to help your daughter depends a lot on how her behaviour is affecting her confidence or interfering with her getting on with her life. If she is generally happy and succeeding in her own way, then it might not be a big issue, but if you feel it is holding her back, then you might want to take specific steps to help her. In the first instance, you might want to talk to her teacher to get more specific details on how she is getting on in school and to explore ways of helping her participate more.

Improving your daughter’s confidence is a delicate balance between accepting and enjoying her as she is (for example, praising her – “it is great the way you think carefully before you act”) and gently encouraging her to take on new challenges and to stretch herself (“I think you will be able to give it another go”). Be wary about directly drawing attention to her lack of confidence especially socially (for example by asking, “Why did you not go and talk to that girl?”) which can perhaps make it a bigger issue for her and even make her make her more self-conscious.

Instead, it might be more effective to coach her in specific strategies that she might employ in advance of difficult situations. If she not feeling confident about starting a new activity, you can take her through the expected steps and what is needed. The key is to be empathetic about her nerves (“It is not easy starting something new”) and to express belief and confidence in her ability (“You always get there in the end”).

It is also useful for you and her father to model appropriate self-confidence and show her how you deal with situations. For example, if you are doing something that doesn’t turn out the best, you can explain to her, “I didn’t get it finished but I am pleased I did my best” or “I can try again tomorrow”. Or if you are starting something new you can say, “I am a bit nervous . . . but I know I will feel better once I get started”. Letting her see how you cope will help her a lot.

To improve her confidence, make sure she has plenty of opportunity to take part in activities – whether these are sports, martial arts, beavers, arts and crafts and so on – that match her strengths and where she will naturally shine and mix with children who are similar to her.

To counteract her perfectionist streak, encourage her to take part in activities that aren’t necessarily competitive and allow for lots of different outcomes, such as drawing or painting or team games and projects, and make sure to praise her efforts rather than specific success – “It is great the way you gave that a go”.

Also, if public performance is the main issue, let her have plenty of time to practise something – she might be more able to try an activity at home in private so she can learn to do it right before doing it in a social situation with everyone watching.

Finally, if her lack of confidence is largely in social situations, arranging one-to-one play dates with children she identifies in school as potential friends can help. Having one or two friends in the classroom will make an enormous difference to her confidence overall in the school.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
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