Helping Children Gain the Confidence to Take on the School Year
The back-to-school season is full of excitement, but it can also bring on academic and social pressures for students. These new experiences are an opportunity for kids to grow and build confidence. However, because children are still getting to know themselves, they are vulnerable to comparing themselves to their peers and to taking setbacks harder.
Erika Rackers, Statewide Co-Director of Curriculum and Assessment for Great Circle, shares some insights on how parents and caretakers can help their kiddos build a solid sense of self-worth and resilience. When kids have a guide to look to, they can confidently approach the challenges the rest of the school year might bring.
Recognizing Low Self-Worth
Low self-esteem can affect children at any age, but it’s common for middle school-aged children to start feeling more self-conscious. “You might notice your child becoming more preoccupied with what others think or developing some people-pleasing tendencies,” says Erika Rackers.
Departures from previous behavior, like a drop in school performance, withdrawal from social groups or activities, or increased mood swings all might be signs the child is struggling with self-worth. “Kids’ self-esteem might become apparent in the way they speak about themselves, older kids might say like ‘I’m stupid' or ‘I’m ugly' or other negative self-talk,” says Rackers. “Younger kids might express hard feelings in their drawings.” Kids will find a way to communicate what they're struggling with. It's important to listen and take their feelings seriously.
Going Beyond the Surface
When a child expresses negative views of themself, an adult’s reflex might be to disagree with the child’s harsh words. This is a natural reaction, but the child might interpret this as dismissing their feelings. “Rather than meeting negative self-talk with ‘you know that’s not true’ or ‘that’s silly’ try asking why,” advises Rackers. It’s important to listen, validate and go deeper. Asking a child why they would say such critical things about themselves makes a child feel heard and taken seriously. This also helps them think more deeply about where they might have picked up the belief and reexamine it.
Often negative self-beliefs come from comparison, whether to their peers or to a high standard they believe they’re not meeting. Asking your kid questions like, “if you were to meet this high standard would you really be happier?” or “what happens if you don’t meet this standard?” can encourage your child to think more critically about the expectations they put on themselves. What might seem minor to an adult can feel much larger to a kid. This doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t valid, but it can be helpful for an adult to give them the tools to zoom out.
Many people think being a good role model means not letting your child see you make any mistakes. However, it’s actually more important for kids to see examples of adults having flaws, making mistakes and taking responsibility for them. No one is perfect and knowing that the adults in their lives have gotten things wrong and still were okay makes them feel less alone. “It’s important to model admitting when you’re wrong and apologizing,” says Rackers. This lets them know that it’s safe to make mistakes and helps teach them the value of making amends when necessary. Setbacks are a natural part of growing and learning. When getting things wrong is normalized, kids can focus on what they can learn from the mistake rather than beating themselves up.
A strong sense of belonging within the family sets kids up for good self-esteem. Its crucial kids feel like they fit in with their families without changing or hiding who they are. When children can trust their parents or guardians to show them unconditional positive regard and to help them make sense of things, whatever they encounter outside of the home becomes far less difficult to navigate. "Quality interactions with your child are more important than quantity," says Rackers. "Give them your full attention, listen, validate and give them an opportunity to respond." Unconditional support in the home is the first step to building confidence at school, with their peers and beyond.