Parents can help children learn to squash self-doubt by uncovering the hidden worries and replacing negatives with positives.
Almost everyone confronts periods of self-doubt. What if the other kids don’t like me? What if I can’t remember the spelling words? What if my teacher thinks I’m not smart? In fact, those three questions were all uttered by self-doubting kids who needed my help. Self-doubt, it seems, is part of growing up.
Listen and validate.
We all need time to vent our frustration, and sometimes that might sound like a string of negatives tied together with a healthy dose of self-doubt. That’s okay. It’s important to listen to your child before you attempt to help. You might think you know what’s really beneath the self-doubt, but your child might have a very different story to tell.
Listen to your child and validate his feelings. It’s okay to question our abilities at times; it’s what we do to overcome that feeling that’s important.
Uncover the emotions.
Negative emotions are closely tied to self-doubt. In fact, a study published in Child Development found that children who suffered from high levels of anxiety and depression were more likely to experience self-doubt. Negative past experiences can also cause self-doubt long after you think the experience is resolved.
Ask your child to describe how he feels when self-doubt creeps in. Is he worried that he can’t complete a task? Is he embarrassed that he doesn’t have someone to sit with at lunch? Is he sad that math is hard? When your child unpacks his feelings, he can begin to work through them.
More often than not, when kids encounter intense feelings of self-doubt, they are overwhelmed by a task. Instead of focusing on the fact that he already knows how to dribble when joining a basketball team, for example, a child might take in the whole scene (the hoop, the other kids, the passing, the size of the court) and become lost in self-doubt.
Teach your child to zoom in on both strengths and weaknesses. Instead of looking through the wide-angle lens and assuming he can’t do something, he can zoom in to assess the positives and negatives and make a plan to overcome the negatives. (For example: I don’t know how to do a layup, but I can ask my coach for help.)
Teach realistic self-talk.
It’s essential for negative thinkers to learn how to reframe their thoughts by countering negative self-talk with positive self-talk, but it’s also important to be realistic. If we constantly teach kids to challenge their negative thoughts with unrealistic or goal-oriented thoughts (I will get an A on this test!), we aren’t doing them any favors.
Have your child make a list of negative statements that run through his mind and then make another list of counter statements that include steps to avoid the negative outcome. Instead of, “I’m terrible at math,” for example, your child might say, “I’m working really hard to understand my math homework.”
Children often report feeling worried or anxious when self-doubt kicks in. It makes sense. Deep breathing and visualization can help.
The first step is to teach your child to use deep breathing. I find that many kids equate deep breathing with fast breathing. To teach them, I ask them to visualize blowing up a balloon. Cue your child to bring the imaginary balloon to his mouth, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four and breathe out for four.
Once your child has the deep breathing down, teach him to visualize overcoming his source of self-doubt while using deep breathing to calm his worries.
Make corrections. Most parents understand the importance of modeling healthy habits, even when it comes to the words we use, but it’s easy to get caught up in negative self-talk without even realizing it. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “Oh man, I ruined the sauce—I’m the worst cook”? Our kids take their cues from us. Even when we’re kidding, we need to choose our words carefully. Make corrections to your own negative self-talk to show your kids that even adults need to reframe their thoughts and focus on the positive.