Parenting a Discouraged Child – Overcoming Self-Doubt and Promoting Self-Confidence

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“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” – Arthur Ashe

Lots of kids have a hard time committing themselves to expend the effort to learn what their teachers want them to learn. We adults might say to them, “Just do it!”…but the directive is unlikely to get the desired result. Instead, a frustrated student often holds the pencil, looks at the paper, stares at the textbooks and hopes for any interruption.

You might ask “Why?” Why don’t kids do what we did? Some of us were good students because we believed we were supposed to be good students. If our family expected us to be good students, many of us inherited the belief that we could be. For some of us, our commitment to success in school was to prove our family belief wrong. Even if no one in our family had ever graduated from high school or college, some of us took on the challenge and said, “I will!” But some of us became embittered about school and education because we believed we couldn’t succeed no matter what. And unfortunately, even when this notion is not spoken or broadcast within a family, kids sometimes inherit their parents’ belief.

Self-confidence is a crucial component of achieving success in school. When children are confident, they can learn new ideas and facts because their minds are open and available. Their minds are not busy or distracted with memories of failure, criticisms of their abilities or messages of self-doubt. Internal chattered messages of “I can’t” crowd out any possibility of “Maybe I can!” When a child believes he/she cannot learn, when she believes she isn’t smart enough or when he believes the challenge is too great for him, learning is impossible…the internal chorus is too loud and distracting.

Repairing self-confidence is difficult–but not impossible. However, most kids are unable to do it on their own. The adults in a discouraged child’s world become the only forces strong enough overcome the child’s perception of self-doubt. Children are at the mercy (or blessed by) the behaviors of the adults they respect and look-up to. So, they either unconsciously absorb the negative perceptions or the positive ones.

Overcoming Self-Doubt

A discouraged child is likely to believe that a task is impossible–for him. He can see that others can do it and yet he is unable to successfully accomplish the expected goal. It is valuable to see how it is possible to create a self-doubting child so that we can devise an opposite tactic to create a confident child.

Little children listen to what we say. And, because we’re bigger and seem to be knowledgeable, kids believe us (at least when they are little). With this huge power to sculpt a child’s beliefs, adults may inadvertently undermine a child’s confidence–actually teaching self-doubt. When we narrow a child’s endeavors (i.e. “You aren’t big enough to carry the milk to the table”), we potentially contribute to a developing self-image that doubts his/her own physical ability. When we ask disparaging questions (i.e. “Why can’t you be smart like your sister?”), we add strength to a child’s belief that the observed comparison is valid and that she is “not smart” (translated to ” not capable”). Or when we complain about our children’s faults to others (i.e. “He is so lazy and he never cleans up after himself”), they often internalize the criticism as a statement of fact about him as a person.

Most of us parents have been very careful to avoid blatant messages of failure or discouragement. But the process of development (from infantile incompetence to adult competence), is fraught with opportunities for success and failure from the child’s perspective. Kids know when they’ve “blown it”. And, often we’re not around to reverse the child’s sense of failure or lack of skill.

Therefore, it is our job as parents (and grandparents and teachers and caring adults) to encourage our children whenever we can. Now, it doesn’t work to offer undeserved praise–that will only instill a distrust of you and your opinion. For example: When a kid spills the milk, you wouldn’t say, “Great job”. And if he brings home a spelling test on which she scored two (2) correct answers out of ten (10), your child would be very suspicious if you said “well, two correct is better than one”. Kids are smart, they can see through fabricated manipulation and they’ll distrust your future evaluations.

Promoting Courage and Self-Confidence

Instead of talking about evaluations (who did what, how it turned out, and how a child’s performance compared to others) a conversation about positive behaviors and abilities is more likely to reverse the downward drag of self-doubt and redirect toward a new process of ascending self-confidence. Look for small successes and brag on them.

“Honesty” is everything and “Tact” is a close second.

1) When your child sets the table, point out when the forks and spoons are in the right position. Congratulate your child’s correct behavior, admire his/her ability to do it right (where it truly IS correct) and ask him to check and compare the other settings so he/she can make corrections if necessary. When the table is set properly, comment about how you feel about things being in their proper place and your child’s ability to make it so.

2) When your child brings home a less-than-stellar report card, look first at what IS stellar. Congratulate your child’s positive performance, admire his ability to do it right (where it truly IS correct) and ask him what the difference is between the subjects he does well in and what subjects are more difficult. Include your child in the discussion (to evidence your opinion that his ideas ARE valuable and you want him to keep coming up with new ideas). Then ask him how you can help. Putting your child in charge of the challenge, honoring his opinions and ideas and offering your support tell him many things:

1) You trust that he CAN think it through,

2) You believe that his ideas are valuable and

3) That you’re willing to do what you need to in order to support his success.

Your confidence in his thoughts and abilities reinforces his budding courage to explore issues and bolsters his self-confidence.

3) When your child is bullied by another child, empathize with her feelings first. This validates her belief that you care about her and her feelings. Then, ask her about the incident factually (who did what, what happened next and how did it end). Ask her how she wished it had gone and what she might have done to prevent it. Brainstorm options (hers first and then yours) that might prevent future incidents. Encourage her to suggest ideas about how you can help her before you offer your solutions. By making her the leader of the conversation, you’re honoring her opinions and ideas. In contrast a child who believes that her ideas are dumb, won’t be willing to explore the possibilities.

Per Arthur Ashe’s quote: preparation is an important component to achieving Self-Confidence. Courage must be nurtured in children for them to develop the self-confidence they will need to tackle the challenges of childhood and to become self-assured and productive adults. Our job as parents is to notice the little opportunities and point them out to our developing children…every time we can. This creates a mental environment of “CAN DO” and provides a safe relationship that supports the courage to try!

Parenting isn’t easy…it’s a 24-7 job even when the kids are out of site they aren’t out of mind. And, the wise parent knows when the goin’ gets rough, go ‘n’ get more information. You’ll find a great resource at []


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