Eleven ways to encourage confidence in your child

All children, like adults, clam up in certain situations. Clinical Psychologist Dr Victoria Samuel gives some practical tips for helping to help hesitant little people grow in confidence

1. If you're worried that your child is too shy, it's vital you avoid labelling your child as shy or nervous, either directly to your child or when talking about them to others. Labels stick and rapidly lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You may have banished all labels, but what happens if you keep coming up against “isn’t she shy” declarations from teachers, friends or family - said with conviction in front of your little one?

Ensure your child is left with a positive view of themselves by calmly and confidently bouncing by the generalisation with a subtle reframing: “Katie likes to think things through before rushing in” or “Danny likes to listen to others before sharing his views”.

If your child is upset or fearful, accept feelings with warmth and concern: “it sounds as if you’re feeling nervous, that’s understandable”.

2. Tempting though it may be, avoid dismissing or ‘taking away’ feelings eg “don’t be silly, big boys don’t get shy”. These kinds of comments lead children to feel that their inner states are not valid. This can be confusing and lead to anxiety.

Children whose feelings are accepted and supported by their parents tend to be much more ‘emotionally literate’, confident and secure.

3. Normalise doubts by talking about a generic other: “everyone feels unsure from time to time” or by referring to situations you find daunting and how you attempt to overcome them: “sometimes I feel worried about speaking up at work, but I always make and effort and feel good afterwards”. Use story books to introduce themes of facing fears or overcoming challenges.

4. Children learn social skills from watching others so model the kind of interactions you want to encourage: be warm and friendly with people you don’t know, introduce yourself to new people, ask people for help, give compliments to friends and thank others for their time.

5. Think about the specific situations that make your little one run for cover and identify skills that may help equip them for better managing these daunting scenarios. Use role play to help them rehearse these skills. For example if your child shrinks into the corner at birthday parties set up a party scene and use favourite toys or teddies to act out different interactions: giving the party girl their present; saying hello to other children; asking the adult where the toilet is; saying thank you on leaving.

6. Once you’ve practiced through play, gently encourage new activities by providing manageable opportunities for success. Take a gradual, step-by-step approach. For example, if you’re child is nervous about starting Brownies, take her along to watch the group for the first week, then suggest she joins in at the end for ten minutes the next week whilst you stay in the room. Then build up to leaving the room for brief periods. Before long, she will be bouncing into the group and happily taking part in the full session.

7. It’s crucial you hide any doubts or anxieties you may have about your little’s one’s ability to cope. Combine empathy for her feelings (see point 2) with confident assertions that you have faith in her: “Ahh, I can see you’re feeling a bit worried, but I’m really confident you’ll be able to handle it”.

8. It’s tempting when faced with a wary, cautious little person to step in to do things for them, however this can be counterproductive. When your child is approaching new situations or learning new things, try to step back from interfering too much as this may make him hesitant and reliant on others. Let your child learn through exploration and trial & error; this will help him to develop a sense of personal mastery and confidence.

9. Help boost your little one’s self-esteem by using descriptive praise to clearly identify specific behaviours that you value: “you said hello even though you felt nervous, that was really brave”. This will help your child to develop an inner sense of achievement and pride.

10. Show physical affection and regularly and repeatedly tell your child how much she is loved. Warm, playful and affectionate interactions with your child will fill them with a sense of being valued and accepted; crucial for developing the inner self-confidence required for approaching and interacting with others.

11. If your child is chronically sad and withdrawn, is unable to face any social situations, has suddenly changed from being outgoing to quiet and anxious, or if they show absolutely no interest in interacting with others, it would be worth considering getting professional support. Make an appointment with your GP to discuss options.

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Dr Victoria Samuel provides practical, professional guidance for common parenting concerns at Bristol Psychology Services.

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