Your 10-year-old daughter stands in front of the mirror and asks, ‘Am I fat?’ Or your son comes home and says no one will talk to him at school because he let in the winning goal in the soccer game.
There are several reasons self-confidence can waver in the preteen years. “This is a time of transition,” says Vancouver parenting educator and author Kathy Lynn. Kids are moving out of childhood and into adolescence. Budding breasts and changes in body shape can make kids feel self-conscious at a time when the opinion of their peers is beginning to matter more. Their social lives intensify: Boys and girls are paying more attention to one another, but not always in the nicest way. One young male friend of mine recalled being 10 years old, seeing a bunch of girls, wondering how to get their attention, and thinking: “I know, be mean to them!”
Kids this age are also gaining a more realistic understanding of themselves and the world, including their own limits and abilities. “Little kids believe they can do anything,” says Lynn. “A 10-year-old is capable of looking around at his relatives, all of whom are on the short side, and realize he probably won’t play for the NBA.”
Not only that, according to one body-image study of 11- and 13-year-olds, kids who mature really early or later than most of their peers, or have concerns about body size, are more likely to have lower self-esteem. Helping kids feel positive about the changes happening to their bodies can help them feel more confident.
Kids can be mean
Kids in the throes of this transition can also be hard on one another. “Bullying and teasing quite often intensify around this time,” says Lynn. It can be direct, like having your lunch money stolen; it can be subtle, especially among girls, who tend to exclude one another.
Navigating the challenges of growing up requires healthy self-esteem — seeing yourself as worthy and lovable, and also being able to handle whatever life throws your way, says Lynn.
The good news is that parents are still the prime source of self-esteem. Here are some key messages you can send to your child:
I have time for you. Hanging out with your child, spending time talking, reviewing your day, working on projects and being close by to help with homework send the message that you value him and he can count on you for backup. Even if he shows little sign he appreciates your company, you can rest assured that he needs and wants it.
I love you. Kids need affection from both parents, says Lynn. “They need to hear that they are loved — and they need hugs, which really do feed the soul.” There are lots of ways to say it: breakfast out with Dad on Saturday mornings or a note of appreciation on her pillow. If she’s spent an hour getting ready for a party, you might say, “Gee, you look great!”
Bear in mind that this is the age when a child might want to walk six paces ahead of you at the mall rather than link arms or hold hands like she used to do. That’s OK; this expression of independence in public doesn’t mean you should give up on private hugs.
I see you as capable. Lynn recommends finding an activity kids really enjoy to give them the experience of feeling good about an accomplishment. It may take some time to find a good fit: Soccer may not be his game, but he might love guitar lessons. “It’s also important to provide opportunities for success,” says Lynn. “For example, if you ask her to help with dinner, give her a specific task. Then you might say to the rest of the family, ‘We wouldn’t have had a salad tonight if Sally hadn’t made it.’”
I understand that it’s important to fit in. Being one of the gang is more important than expressing an independent identity at this stage, says Lynn. That might mean buying a few trendy clothes, as long as you’re not blowing the budget.
I admire your effort. Over-praising can actually damage self-esteem, says Lynn. “Kids see through it if we gush every time they do something (‘What do you mean I’m a great runner — I came 10th!’).” Kids will fare better if we can help them develop the ability to acknowledge failure, recover and move on. “I like to use the learning-to-walk analogy,” says Lynn. “Some falling over is part of the process — it’s how you develop the skill.”
I hear you. When a child comes to us with an experience that has derailed her confidence, often our first tendency is to dismiss it, says Lynn. “If she says, ‘I feel rotten,’ we’re often tempted to come back with ‘You don’t need to feel rotten.’” It’s important to listen and not say much to start with. Once you understand her experience, and have acknowledged how she’s feeling, you can say, ‘Is there something I can do to help?’ says Lynn. “Kids quite often know what they need, but they may not come right out and say it.”