We all aspire for our children to grow up with a positive self-image and an abundance of self-confidence. When life throws our child a dilemma, it’s our natural instinct to want to fix it, or at least work them through the uncomfortable feelings with a pep talk. In this episode, Janet answers questions from three listeners and offers a more helpful – albeit counterintuitive – perspective that can help children learn resilience and find the kind of confidence in themselves that lasts a lifetime.
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be talking about a topic that’s very intriguing to me because it’s so counterintuitive for most of us. And those kinds of challenges really interest me. This topic is helping children feel more self-confident and more positive. How can we do that? The advice I give in this podcast may be a little bit surprising.
Parents often reach out to me on a topic that was really important to me as well as a parent, it’s about encouraging our children’s self-confidence. How do we do that? Well, simplifying this, we can look at the Oxford Dictionary definition of self-confidence, which is “a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment.”
So how do we encourage children to trust themselves and their abilities? Well, we trust them and their abilities because we are these powerful influencers in our child’s life. It’s just like if we want our children to feel that they deserve respect, then we have to respect them to show them that. It’s the same with self-confidence. And this is why Magda Gerber’s first principle of her approach is “basic trust in the infant as an initiator, an explorer, and a self-learner.” Children have the goods to be learners, they know what they’re doing in this department. They don’t need us to decide what they should learn when in these early years, or maybe ever.
So we want to trust in them, meaning we are trusting the way that they explore, the way that they process, and the way they learn from their experiences. To do that, we actually want to lean into what they’re feeling and what they’re exploring, and what they’re interested in, in their time, rather than taking it upon ourselves, or maybe following the normal urge that many of us have, I have it, to try to work them through what they’re learning, their issues, work them through situations, work them through feelings, to fix them, to try to make it better.
If you would’ve asked me years ago, before I studied with Magda, how to help a child feel more self-confident, I would probably have answered, “You build them up. You tell them how wonderful they are and how great they are, and how capable they are and that they can do things.” That’s not really trusting. And that doesn’t build self-confidence as much as when we actually lean into taking interest in and encouraging our child’s process.
The easiest way for me to explain this is through questions that parents have shared with me, so that’s what I’m going to do. I have three here. The first one is in the comments section of my website on a post for one of the podcasts I did with Australian parenting expert Maggie Dent, called “Boys Do Cry and They Need To.” So here’s what the parent asked, she said:
Being a mom of two boys, one rooster, age four, and one lamb, age 8, this is very helpful, but it is so challenging. Switching from the rooster to the lamb is exhausting. My lamb has recently started saying things like, ‘I’m stupid,’ ‘I hate myself,’ ‘I don’t deserve anything,’ ‘I’m not good at anything.’ How do I address this? I’ve tried saying it might feel that way because of the situation, and it’s okay to be frustrated, disappointed, et cetera, but it doesn’t seem to change things. He’s very hard on himself. And it is hard for me to let him feel all these negative feelings, especially when directed towards himself. When I was younger, I suffered because of a lack of self-confidence and a negative self-image, so it is a very difficult thing for me to address with him. My instinct is to tell him, ‘You shouldn’t hate yourself, you can hate the situation,’ or to try to get him to journal about the things that make him feel that way. We try to discuss things like the things he likes about himself or what he feels good about. It seems hopeless at times. He has no problem sharing his negative, sad feelings, but cannot seem to find positivity.
So just to explain what this parent was saying about the rooster and the lamb, those are Maggie Dent’s terms for two different types of personalities. The rooster is the more assertive, maybe stronger-willed child, and the lamb is the maybe more sensitive, quieter child, less dominating.
The first thing that stuck out to me in this note, as just an aside, is that she said this switching from the rooster to the lamb is exhausting. So right there, that gives me a clue that maybe this mom has taken things upon herself, seeing things as her role that actually she could let go of and trust more. Because ideally, it really shouldn’t feel exhausting for us, and it shouldn’t drain us to engage with children that have opposite types of temperaments or personalities. The reason it does usually is that we are trying to help lift this one up, we’re trying to help put this other one in their place because maybe they come very strongly. And really, it’s our job to give boundaries and be the leader to these children, but not make up for or, in some way, fill in for their strengths or their weaknesses. In other words, I think this parent may be taking on too much in her role.
Now, then this parent says some other things that, to me, they ring so true as common ways that I would want to react, and I know a lot of other parents do too, to a child saying these kinds of things, which are alarming. We don’t want to hear our children saying those things about themselves.
She says, “I’ve tried saying it might feel that way because of the situation, and it’s okay to be frustrated, disappointed, et cetera.” So right there, she’s doing a common thing, which is she’s analyzing for him what’s going on. And what I want to encourage her and other parents to do is instead of analyzing, to really connect. And to connect with a child, we have to meet them right where they are and hear what they’re saying, and allow those feelings to be valid and have a life. And I would say straight off too, that everything children say is not a fact or heartfelt deep way of thinking about themselves. It’s a feeling. Feelings come and go, they’re like waves passing through.
So we have to be careful as adults not to take everything that children say as something that our child believes as a fact. It’s not a fact when they say to us, “I like my other parent better,” it’s not a fact when they say, in this case, “I’m stupid, I hate myself. I don’t deserve anything.” These are feelings that he’s having. So it’s really safe for us to allow those feelings and encourage children to have those feelings.
Getting back to encouraging self-confidence, what is that doing when we lean into where a child’s actually feeling, and connect with them there? It’s trusting. It’s trusting that child to feel what they feel, be who they are, know themselves best in that moment, and be able to process situations.
Then she says something wonderfully revealing, she says, “I suffered because of a lack of self-confidence and negative self-image, so it’s a very difficult thing for me to address with him.” This is a common theme that comes up for us as well, as parents, that the things that we’re sensitive about are places where we can get stuck. And those places are much harder places for us to trust, to trust that our child is different than us, a different person, and needs to be in their process, whatever they’re feeling needs to be okay, really okay.
Again, I think it will help if we realize that feelings aren’t facts etched in stone that our child’s going to believe forever, or even more than for a few moments. These feelings, he can hold onto them longer if he doesn’t feel that they’re being really heard and accepted all the way. If he feels this kind of uncomfortable, pushing back, not really allowing and accepting, not trusting that it’s safe and okay for him to feel those things.
So she brings up such great examples of human impulses that we have, especially if we’re parents. We don’t want to see our children suffering and we want to help them come out of that. But all of that gets in the way of our ultimate goal, which is that we want him to feel self-confident, which means trust in himself and his abilities and his process.
She says, “My instinct is to tell him, ‘You shouldn’t hate yourself, you can hate the situation.'” And right there, that’s another common thing that every great parent I know has probably felt at some point, which is, we just want to say, “You shouldn’t feel that way, I don’t want you to feel that way. Don’t feel the way you’re feeling.” She says that’s her instinct, so I don’t know that she’s actually telling him those things. But that’s the message that children get. “You shouldn’t feel depressed, look at all the things you have in life that are so positive.” Have we ever heard that? Or have we ever said that to someone? “Well, yes, this sad thing happened, but look at all the good things that you have going on in your life. It could be worse.”
We’re denying feelings when we do that. We’re denying the other person’s feelings, we may be denying our own feelings, and it doesn’t help us process through the feelings, learn from them, and move through them, leave them behind. Somebody else can’t do that for us, we have to do it for ourselves, and children have to do it for themselves, in their own unique way and time.
She says, “We try to discuss things like things he likes about himself, or what he does feel good about.” So discussing things that he likes about himself is trying to insert positivity, trying to get a child to feel better and think positively, which is understandable because this is a soft spot for her, this is a tender place for her, the self-confidence. She doesn’t want to think of him having a bad self-image. And honestly, I don’t think that he does, but again, seeing everything as a process, this is something he’s wanting to express to her, to share with her. It’s the healthiest thing. How great that he’s saying these things, instead of just thinking them to himself! And the fact that he’s sharing them means that she can receive them.
That’s what I would do, I would lean into, “Wow. You’re saying that makes you feel stupid. What makes you feel stupid about this? Because you couldn’t do it the first time. Ugh, that makes you feel like you can’t do things, huh?”
Or, “I hate myself.”
“Ooh, you’re really getting down on yourself, huh? You don’t like yourself right now. What’s going on with that?”
“I don’t deserve anything.”
“Wow, it feels like you don’t deserve anything. That’s some pain inside. I want to know about that, I want to hear more about that.”
So I realize that leaning into the feelings always takes this leap of faith. For me, I think I’ve said this before here, I feel like I’ve actually left the water running in the bathtub and it’s just going to overflow if I really allow this. But this is the key. This is what helps him to feel trusted in his process and trust in himself. We can trust in ourselves when it’s okay to go to all those dark places in ourselves.
When we can share those, just that act of sharing them and being accepted and acknowledged for what we’re sharing, sometimes that can be all we need to start to let go of them and move through them.
But this is not our process, it belongs to our child. So we have to trust him to do it his way, and staying connected is the best thing that we can do. Show him that support. Obviously, you’re not agreeing that he can’t do anything, or that he doesn’t deserve anything, but you’re really interested in what he’s feeling, where he’s getting these things, and what’s the feeling within those feelings? It sounds like he’s hurt, and that’s the part we want to help him get to if possible.
This parent did all of these intuitive things, normal things, and what I’m suggesting is not intuitive at all, I realize that. And when things aren’t intuitive, that means, for most of us, we will never reflexively be able to do these things. And so we may need to take that pause to reenter ourselves because reflexively, we’re going to do all of these wonderful, loving things that this parent is doing.
Okay, here’s another question. This parent says:
Applying your principles of respectful parenting has helped equip us for raising a wonderful, empathetic, and curious five-year-old girl. But lately, we’ve been struggling with a high sensitivity to embarrassment. We’ve been traveling and visiting friends and family of different ages. It started when we were spending time with one of my adult friends and I was teasing my friend, and we all had a good laugh. But my daughter thought the laughs were directed at her and was very sad and shut down. She repeatedly said throughout the day, ‘I didn’t like it when you all laughed at me.’ And I assured her that we were all laughing at my friend and not her. We’ve already talked about the concept with her friends at preschool, that it’s okay to laugh with each other, but not at each other.
While this incident happened a couple of weeks ago, she still struggles with the feeling that everyone is laughing at her. It’s gotten to the point where when she’s trying to make us laugh, being silly, and making jokes, she’ll immediately regret it and get that self-conscious and defensive reaction. I hate to think that something we are doing or not doing is causing my daughter to shut down and downplay her awesome sense of humor, spontaneous fun, and self-confidence. Please offer any experience, advice, or perspective you have.
Okay, so this event happened where the daughter got confused, and it brought up feelings for her that were really uncomfortable. This mother is handling it in very normal, loving ways. She says, “I assured her that we were all laughing at my friend and not her.” That was a good thing to clear up for her. But the truth is, that just as with the previous child’s feelings about, “I’m stupid, I hate myself. I don’t deserve anything,” this child felt upset that maybe there was this attention on her, that she was being laughed at. This is a feeling that she’s processing.
As I said, it was good that the mother clarified that it wasn’t about her. But then I would still go from there straight to what my child is feeling, leaning into that. “Wow, it felt like they were laughing at you. And how did that feel?” Asking your child, engaging with your child around this, with that openness, letting that feeling be — that she felt like she was being laughed at. “And how did that feel?” That didn’t feel good to her.
The reason that children get stuck where they seem like they can’t get beyond it is because they don’t feel trusted and encouraged to process the situation the way children do so brilliantly. There again is that self-learning ability that children have. It’s phenomenal. And the way this girl’s doing it is she’s feeling the feeling, and the parent says she’s still struggling with the feeling that everyone is laughing at her. So now it feels like she’s imagining this happening with other people too.
There’s something really interesting that this little girl is processing in herself. So obviously, I don’t know exactly what’s going on in this little girl’s mind, but she’s clearly in a process that, ideally, if we want her to come out of this, as soon as possible, and with it encouraging her confidence, then we’ve got to trust her.
Children process situations so wonderfully — things that disturb them, things that bother them, situations that touch things off in them, things that are maybe scary that happened, or someone talked a certain way on the streets, and it could be someone they don’t know, or maybe it is an exchange that they’ve had with the parent, or a sibling, or another caregiver. What they do is they bring it up and they bring it up and they bring it up. It’s like they’re turning it in every direction, they’re imagining it, experiencing it, letting it happen to them again and again.
It’s really this thorough, very therapeutic learning process that they have to making peace with it. And this process can’t be rushed, can’t be taken on as ours to manage. It really has to be trusted in our children to give them this self-confidence that children are born with, these seeds of self-confidence. It’s not like we have to build it for them, they already have the seeds there, they just need to be nurtured. And nurturing it is, back to that word again, trust. Trusting them so that they have more and more trust for themselves.
The really cool thing that this little girl is doing is actually recreating the situation again and again, for herself to explore it more fully and deeply, and also explore her parents’ reaction to it. She’s, obviously because children do, she’s getting the feeling that her parent is not comfortable with this, and wants to resolve it for her. And what that does is cause a child to have more interest in: Wow, why is this so disturbing for my parent too? So she’s got that to explore, so that’s why our responses that aren’t as trusting can actually make the issue go on longer, which is obviously the opposite of what we hope for. That’s the part that we can play in this without meaning to, with all of our best intentions.
So I think that may be happening here, and in the previous note as well. In this case, the parent says, “I hate to think that something we’re doing or not doing is causing my daughter to shut down and downplay her awesome sense of humor, her spontaneous fun, and self-confidence.”
Yeah, so that’s a disturbing worry that this parent has. And this is such normal adult thinking that we think of things as kind of done. And for children, we see things as a result, that: oh no, this is done, and she feels this way now, and what’s happened here? Instead of realizing that children, their minds and their imaginations, and their emotions are all in motion, they’re always in that process. We’d be so healthy to be more like them.
But of course, as parents, what do we do first? (I’m raising my hand.) We worry. So it makes sense. But what I would do is, again, lean into this and trust her process. “Wow, now you’re being silly. And then you are feeling that feeling of what it’s like to be laughed at. That felt upsetting to you or disturbing.” Or, “how did it feel?” is even better. Not deciding how she should feel, but really curious.
“How does that feel when it feels like people are laughing at you? And even when you’re making us laugh, that is uncomfortable. What is that in you?”
None of these specific words matter, what matters is that we’re open to and we’re receiving and allowing the feelings to live and breathe, trusting that these are all in motion, they’re passing through, and she’s learning from them, she’s learning about the situation. She’ll be a master at this idea of being laughed at versus laughing with by the end of this if we can trust her.
All right, here’s one more:
Recently, my four-year-old daughter has been experiencing anxiety with me on the scene but does well when I’m away. She was taken out of her gymnastics class because of compulsory masking, and eight months later, we rejoined, but she cried when I left her side and kept running to me. I tried rewards and empathy, but she ultimately did not want to stay in the class.
If I’m helping her at school, she wants to be near me. She cries when I drop her off in an unfamiliar setting, but then does fine after a couple of minutes. How can I teach her to be confident right away? I admit I am not this way, but I want her to be.
I love this parent admitting her soft spot. Oftentimes, again, it’s about us and that we struggled with something, and so we’re extra uncomfortable with our child struggling with it.
And again, with this type of process of getting comfortable… The girl was away from the class for eight months, and maybe the other children were all still in it so now she has to start all over again. And it’s even a bit more challenging than that because the other children may have been continuing. Now she has to come into this situation where other children are more comfortable and in the groove of it, and she’s not. So that’s challenging. She has anxiety and she’s doing things that I would expect.
So what I would do is understand that this is a really typical process for a child. Even with a separation to a class — the other thing that she brings up at school — that she has a hard time with that. Yeah, these are times that bring up emotions, but that’s okay. We can trust that that’s part of the process of saying goodbye to someone or to stepping up to be back in this class again. It’s going to take some push-pull on her part.
So I would, number one, as in all these cases, trust her process. Maybe you can make a decision that this isn’t the right class for her now, that’s a fine decision to make. But I would first trust her process. And what I would do instead of me leaving her side is that I would sit in one place, and let her stay with me and branch out as she’s ready. This is assuming that the teachers will let me stay in the class, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t with a four-year-old child taking gymnastics. She’s very young to be in a structured class.
So I would be there, so calm and so expecting her to take her time to get comfortable and not be confident right away. No child is always confident right away. That wouldn’t be a thoughtful, engaged human child, especially after all this absence. Eight months is a really long time for a four-year-old.
I think the expectation is maybe a little bit unreasonable, that she’s going to be confident right away. There’s no weakness, there’s no problem with taking your time, and having some anxiety around it. This is appropriate anxiety. But if the child feels her parent not trusting her in this process and that the parent is uncomfortable because the parent wants her to be able to do these things a bit more readily, then that’s going to breed a little more doubt and a little more anxiety. Oh, I should be doing something that I don’t feel I can do yet. But I feel this expectation. Nothing gets by children, and that’s why they’re such incredible learners.
So in this case, as I said, I would sit in one place, let her stay with me as long as she needed to, let her run out and come back, and take it in her time. As long as she’s not disrupting the class, I would be fine with that. I would try to totally trust that this girl knows what she’s doing and she’s doing it her way, as all of these children, it sounds like, are.
They’re pretty inspiring. They are accepting of being in these discomforts. It’s just harder for us to let them.
Then if she cries when the parent drops her off in an unfamiliar setting… So as the parent, I would try to take your time with that. If it’s unfamiliar, maybe she needs a little more time with the parent there to get familiar.
I also was struck that the parent said it right in the beginning, “The child has anxiety with me on the scene, but does well when I’m away.” So it really feels like this might be something about the relationship, and the daughter wanting more trust from her parent and needing to maybe explore her parents’ impatience with her process.
These are all wonderful examples of children being able to immerse themselves in learning. And I totally understand, boy do I understand, how hard it is as a parent to trust these processes. But if we take those leaps of faith, we will get the results that we’re hoping for, which is a confident child, a child who trusts themselves and their abilities, their feelings, and their instincts.
So I hope that perspective helps a little bit.
And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening. Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.
What would be your advise for a child almost 5 who has an actual negative self I image. I have seen my sons confidence go down hill since the pre testing pre yelling era (almost after he turned 2) and even more since the birth of my daughter last year? How do I make him self confidence and feel good about himself again? Many thanks for all your lovely posts and podcasts