“A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life, from a spouse it can save a marriage and from a leader it can inspire a person to reach her potential.”
John C Maxwell
Sometimes unconfident children feel something is wrong with them and frequently the reactions of others make matters worse. When a young child who might be prone to anxiety arrives at a new social situation, perhaps at the school gate or at a party, he might cower behind his mother or father’s leg and remain mute.
People around him might try to help by saying, “Don’t be shy” or “Has the cat got your tongue?” but these reactions can increase his anxiety and make him more self-conscious. Focusing on the shyness can inadvertently make the child think something might be wrong with them.
When trying to help anxious children, it helps if the first step is to appreciate their strength and what is right with them. Anxiety in new social situations is entirely appropriate and is a sign of a child taking their time and weighing things up before deciding what to do.
Anxious children are often very sensitive to other people’s feelings and can imagine more easily how other people see the world. While of course they may need some support in navigating the social situation, being shy can be a lot better than being impulsive or bossy in a new social situation. By first appreciating their strengths, we counteract the disinhibiting belief that something is wrong and start with what is right and build from there.
Practically, this might mean we avoid saying don’t be shy to the socially anxious child hiding behind their parents, and instead we might say, “It is great the way you take your time and only talk when you are ready.”
It might also mean we positively coach the child in what to do next. For example, we might guide an anxious child in how to approach other children: “Let’s go over to P and ask him about his game.”
Or we can show them how to give other children compliments as a means of joining in and putting everyone at their ease: “P would love to hear how you like his new digger.” By starting with our children’s strength, we build their confidence and this is the best place to help them deal with whatever issue they are facing.
To use an example for older children, when I am working with parents dealing with challenging teenagers they are often worn down by negativity and rebellion directed towards them. Understandably they begin to see their teens in a negative light, which further compounds the problems.
It is important to remember that there is a different understanding of your teenager’s behaviour, for example, much of it comes from your son or daughter’s insecurity and self-criticism. Teenagers are at a stage of life where they are self-questioning, insecure in peer groups and putting themselves down.
As a way forward, you can take a step back and try to understand things more empathetically from your teenager’s point of view. It can be helpful to ask yourself what do you admire and like about your teenager in spite of the difficulties? What different way could you think about your teenager so as to appreciate some of their positive qualities?
Though this can be hard, shifting to perceive the positives in a difficult situation can be the start of solving problems. For example, though it is challenging to hear your teen’s criticisms, at least you know what is on his or her mind. Or underneath their rebellion it might be useful to appreciate their idealism and how they are willing to give an opinion on how they want things to be different.
A number of years ago I was working with a father who was locked into serious arguments with his 14-year-old daughter. She would constantly question his authority and he would see this as a personal insult to him and react accordingly.
A turning point was when I offered him a “reframe” and said to him, “You must be pleased that your daughter knows how to stand up for herself. This will be a good skill for her in dealing with boys.”
This was an invitation to see some of the strengths in his daughter’s responses which could, in turn, soften his reaction so he could negotiate more positively with her.
How to encourage your child’s potential
Think about each of your children individually and ask the following:
What positive qualities do you particularly appreciate about each of them?
What are you most grateful for about each of them?
- Deliver an encouraging message:
Think about how you might deliver an individual encouraging message to each of your children. Perhaps there is something you really love/ enjoy about them and you would like to remind them of this.
Sometimes it is easy to encourage young children as you can simply tell them how you feel and they respond. With older children and teenagers you might have to pick your moment or adapt your approach to ensure they believe you are sincere. Prepare a special encouraging text message for each of your children that you can send at a good moment.
About the Author
This article by Prof . John Sharry was originally published in The Irish Times newspaper. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every second Tuesday. For further information on building children’s self-esteem, read John’s book: ‘Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children’.