will still face their share of struggles – we’re talking about life, after all – but when they do come up against hardships, both big and small, they’ll have the ability to meet them from a place of strength, with a clear sense of who they are and what they believe.”
Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Yes Brain
Your child’s confidence will have an impact on life experiences far beyond their teen years but we’re focusing on adolescence because it’s such a significant and formative time in anyone’s life. Puberty is often accompanied by major physical changes and it’s quite common for adolescents to begin comparing their talents and abilities to those of their peers. Add in the fact that middle school can trigger unfamiliar relationship dynamics (think cliques and evolving friendships), that more time is being spent in new environments away from home, and that romantic relationships may be entering the scene, and it’s entirely understandable that adolescents might encounter issues with confidence and self-esteem.
There is so much uncertainty wrapped up in these not-quite-a-child/not-yet-an-adult years and that can often cause adolescents to question their worthiness as well as their personal capacity to navigate everyday life. Though parents may not be able to control their kids’ confidence levels, we can establish healthy family patterns and powerful communication practices that encourage teens to love themselves in a way that fosters feelings of security as they navigate life’s natural ups and downs.
Make your home a refuge. We want our kids to turn to us when they feel frightened, face difficult choices, or deal with challenges of any kind. This is especially true in the adolescent years, but it’s so important that we create a home where our children feel comfortable doing so. Empathy is key – before jumping to the shame and blame game, spend a little time remembering how it felt to be a teenager and the types of support you craved from your own family. Try listening to your child with the goal of understanding where they’re coming from as opposed to listening with a plan to place judgement (on them or others), and you can begin to shape your family environment into a safe one for your children and their feelings. This doesn’t mean adopting an “anything goes” attitude. We want to foster a warm, open-minded, and encouraging vibe at home, but there are also expectations and household rules everyone must follow.
Adjust your praise. Research has found that praising a child’s effort, instead of praising their ability, results in a greater willingness to take appropriate risks and a stronger capacity to do hard things and move forward after failure. For instance, if a teen earns high marks on a test, a parent could say: “Wow, you studied so hard for that test, and it really paid off! I’m so proud of you.” instead of “Wow, you’re awesome at math!” Hopefully you can hear that subtle – but important – difference. At the end of the day, we want our teens to be confident in their capacity to work towards a goal and recover with grace and fortitude when things don’t go as well as as they planned. Feeling confident about a solid effort, despite the outcome, can create a remarkable sense of resiliency!
Support their passions. Encourage your tweens and teens to further explore the causes, hobbies, and subjects they love. Finding ways for your adolescents to spend time involved in activities that bring true joy will boost their confidence and help them learn more about themselves. Avoid overcommitting, of course, but help your teen talk through their strengths, challenges, and interests. These conversations are particularly helpful during key turning points throughout the year, such as when you’re planning for the summer or helping your teen decide on extracurricular activities for an upcoming semester.
Let them fail. It’s tempting to want to step in and prevent your children from the sting of failure or the emotions that accompany being hurt, but swooping in to save your teen every time something doesn’t go their way doesn’t allow them to build confidence in the fact that they can handle challenges on their own. A classic example is a student leaving her homework at home and her parent making the active decision not to rush the assignment up to school. The student might suffer a lower grade but she will experience the consequences of her actions and learn an important lesson about personal responsibility. Our kids look to us to garner meaning from experiences, especially difficult ones.
Practice what you preach. Our kids take cues from us far more often than we think. It’s important that your words reinforce the values you’re striving to instill in your children – even when you think they’re not listening. Speak highly of yourself and others. When something doesn’t go your way, be authentic about your disappointment but summon the self-control to not wallow there or pin the blame on someone else. Set an example for your teens when you talk about yourself as well as your accomplishments and failures.
If your teen is experiencing severe struggles with confidence or other emotional issues, don’t wait to ask for help. Reach out to a mental health professional, or contact your child’s school or primary care doctor for support. We also welcome you to visit the Bene RESOURCES page for a list of mental health organizations that provide helpful resources for cultivating mental wellness at every stage of life.