There are many situations where children may feel that they are simply not good enough. Whether a comment made by a friend, a low grade in class, or losing a game, mothers should do all we can to prevent situational self-doubt from becoming habitual. American writer, Suzy Kassem, wrote, “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.”
Long-Term Perils of Self-Doubt
If children do not learn to overcome self-doubt, it can follow them for life. Feelings of inadequacy in elementary school can travel with them to middle school, high school, college, on into their careers and adult lives. The earlier such feelings are squashed, the better, not only for today—but more importantly—for their future. Canadian writer, Yann Martel, wrote, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
Helping Children Overcome Self-Doubt
Parents often have the misconception that we can compliment children or praise them for smaller accomplishments to put their mind at ease, question themselves less, and instill the self-esteem they are lacking. These approaches just aren’t very effective. As parents, we cannot ‘fix’ our child’s self-esteem with flattery. Instead, our job is to help them develop the skills to manage their own problems as they arise. As children become better equipped, they start to believe in themselves. Theodore Roosevelt, said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
Help Them Identify Their Feelings & Differentiate Feelings from the Problem at Hand
When you hear a child make a self-deprecating comment, immediately help them figure out what is causing the lack of self-worth. Ask them, “What is making you feel _____________?” Use the exact term they use as to not impart your interpretation on their statement. The goal isn’t to press them for a long-winded back story, but to get an answer on what is going on now—what happened today—to make them feel this way.
This approach helps children learn to identify the problem accurately—to recognize that the feeling is NOT the person. Consider the problem of a child who is embarrassed because they gave the wrong answer in class. Help the child to identify and define what embarrassment is, as well as identify and define the circumstances that led them to feel embarrassed. Help them separate the feelings from the problem; this knowledge will empower them in future situations.
Coach Children to Solve Their Own Problems
Coach children to utilize skills they already have. We can provide encouragement by saying things like, “You’ve solved problems like this before. What worked well for you last time?” Or “It is okay that this feels hard right now. Remember there have been other times where something new felt hard and with practice it became easier.” Part of being a coach is validating a child’s feelings. Share an instance where you felt similar to what your child is experiencing in that moment—help them realize that other people have faced the same problem—and it took time and effort for these people to overcome.
We can ask, “How can I be of help?” or “What would you find helpful from me right now?” This helps kids feel a sense of control, even if their response is “there is nothing you can do” or “leave me alone.” A mother should be able to feel if her child is best served to talk about the problem—based on their behavior and attitude. If they refuse to talk, but are acting out, challenge them on their behavior and set appropriate limits. Ultimately, children feel more empowered when they have the tools to solve problems that arise, rather than having someone else fix problems for them.
Ask your child to close their eyes and concentrate on their breathing. Deep breathing exercises offer a calming influence over our mental and emotional psyche. After a minute or so, ask them to visualize a positive situation. Encourage them to believe that they can attract the resources to help them overcome.
Choose Words to Promote Possibility
Avoid speaking words of self-condemnation. Even if only subliminal, self-doubt is reinforced when we breathe negativity into the universe. Why should we choose words that frame situations with doubt? Choose words that give way to possibility. The word “can’t” creates limitation. Stop choosing to say “can’t.” While only a minor adjustment, word choice delivers major impact.
Set Limits: Responsibility + Accountability = Independence
Sometimes, big emotions can be overwhelming and lead to poor behavior. In these instances, it is important to establish and reinforce limits. Mom can say things such as, “I understand you are sad or frustrated or don’t feel good about yourself right now, but we still need to complete our homework with our best effort.” Or, “I am sorry you are feeling frustration right now, but you’re not going take out your anger on your sister.” A mother should balance coaching with responsibility and accountability—as a complete process. This combination helps children learn to overcome self-doubt to start tapping into self-confidence and eventually, independence from doubting themselves.
Remember these words by American writer, Elbert Hubbard, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing that you’ll make one.” Self-doubt is a normal part of growing up; it comes from different sources for different children at different stages of development. Teach problem-solving skills so they are better equipped for next time; children start overcoming self-doubt as they start noticing their improvements. Separate the emotion from the problem. Consider prohibiting the word “can’t” from our family’s verbal repertoire—this one tweak will compel children to reformulate sentences with “can do” energy. Teach kids to repurpose self-doubt, not as a barrier to success but as a catalyst to inspire it.
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
—James 1:6-7 NIV
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