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How Do I Instill Confidence in My Child?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

How do you instill confidence in a child? My daughter has a hard time looking people in the eyes. She makes negative comments about things that could or might happen, but never have. She says things like, "I didn't play with them because I know they wouldn't want to play with me," And "They'll tell me to go away and they don't want to be my friend" or "They'll yell at me if I sit by them."

When I watch her play on the school playground the children call her by name and ask her to play with them. They're constantly trying to get her attention. She has a lot of friends.

When I speak to her I give her eye contact. I let her know that when she looks someone in the eyes it tells them she's very interested in what they have to say. She's very pretty and above average in intellect. If you have any pointers I would appreciate it very much.

Answer:

Instilling confidence is such an interesting topic. Each of the behaviors you listed (negativity, poor self- confidence, lack of eye contact) could involve a lengthy discussion, or they could be viewed together as symptoms of: shyness, low self- esteem," depression, or "kindergarten transition."

One approach to building self confidence is to view it as a characteristic of the broader concept of "emotional intelligence." Emotional intelligence suggests that children learn about confidence by watching their parents demonstrate empathy, optimism, problem solving, and social and communication skills. This approach emphasizes that parental self- awareness is the key to modeling appropriate life skills, and by observing this, children improve their own self-awareness and confidence.

However, there is no substitute for life experience. Children also need to encounter their own challenges in order to build self-assurance. Lawrence Shapiro's, How to Raise a Child with a High EQ: A Parents' Guide to Emotional Intelligence is an excellent resource for teaching children positive interactions within themselves (self talk) and with others.

You said that she has a lot of friends and children ask her to play with them I'm wondering if she does have good peer relationships, but she reports it negatively to you.

If that is the case, please understand that sometimes young children learn to connect with parents over having "problems." It may be that she is focused on her difficulties, rather than her strengths. You can have empathy over a negative emotion, but balance it with identifying positive experiences. Ask an open-ended question like, "What was the most fun thing you did today?" Her teacher may be able to give you more insight into how she responds to her peers and thoughts on how to help her feel included by her peers.

It's fine to ask your daughter to look at you when speaking, but everyone has a different ability to hold eye contact. There is interesting research that by age five, children avert gaze in order to comprehend or answer questions. You can check out www.neurodiversity.com for more information.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/19/2010:
"my 4th grader struggles with reading, writing and spelling. due to this he seems to lack confidence and seems depressed. what can I do to improve this"
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