“When Sarah was in grade five, she had a tough math teacher,” says Suzanne Morgan.* “He would assign complex problems for them to work on, and Sarah found them overwhelming. She’d come home and say, ‘I’m just bad at math.’”
That worried Morgan, who says that until that time she would have described Sarah (now 12) as “confident by nature. She had a million friends and was an A student. But she started labelling herself and it wasn’t just math. When they did running at school, she told me, ‘Everyone can run faster than me.’”
According to Calgary parent educator Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress, this diminished self-confidence is a common problem in the preteen years. “Kids are more aware and sensitive about how other people see them at this age,” she says. “Girls, in particular, often seem to lose their voices in the classroom because boys tend to interrupt more and talk over them.”
Parents need to be careful about labelling, Arnall adds. Sometimes we attempt to reassure a child who has done badly on a test at school, for example, by saying, “Well, you’re just not good at spelling.” But Arnall explains that can discourage the child from trying to improve. “Children also hear the ways we label ourselves,” she adds. “If a girl hears her mother say, ‘Oh, I’m just stupid when it comes to remembering things,’ then it seems OK to describe herself as stupid.”
*Names changed by request.
Besides avoiding these labels, Arnall says there are a number of positive things parents can do to boost their preteen’s self-confidence:
Really listen “It means a lot to children to have an adult pay attention to them and respect their thoughts and opinions,” says Arnall. “When they talk to you, ask questions to draw them out and help them think things through. Have family meetings where your preteen can participate in making decisions about things like family vacations and activities. It gives kids confidence to know you value what they say.”
Build skills “Confidence comes from knowing what you can do,” Arnall says. “You want to keep challenging them a bit beyond their comfort level.” She recommends assigning some non-traditional chores so girls get good at mowing the lawn and boys master cleaning toilets. Learning other skills helps too — Elisa Brook’s 10-year-old son, Owen, was discouraged by his lack of progress in piano lessons. “He really didn’t like to practise,” Brook says. “I would sit with him and encourage him, and we worked through one bar at a time. It was slow at first, but we persisted and at the end of the year, he got 92 percent on the exam and was so proud of what he’d accomplished.”
Help them speak up Public-speaking skills help kids organize and express their thoughts, Arnall says, and will be valuable throughout their lives. If they don’t get opportunities for public speaking in school, consider enrolling them in 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, Guides or Scouts to learn these skills. “Many Toastmasters clubs are now offering programs for children too,” Arnall notes.
Focus on abilities, not appearance Preteens can’t help but be aware of the emphasis our society puts on looks, and the changes that come with the onset of puberty make them more self-conscious. “Don’t reinforce that,” Arnall says. “It’s better to point out the things they have accomplished, even if it’s getting high points in a video game.” Parents are important role models in this area too, she adds. “Girls hear their mothers complain about their weight or their lips being too thin, and they look for flaws in themselves.”
Treat mistakes as opportunities for learning “When a child does something wrong, don’t scold or blame,” Arnall advises. “Ask, ‘What did you learn from this?’ This is a great age to make a lot of mistakes, try things out, to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Coach from the sidelines “When you jump in and intervene, you may make your child feel you don’t have confidence in her ability to handle the situation,” Arnall says. “But you can help her make a plan and support her as she makes her own decisions about what to do.” For example, let’s say your daughter isn’t invited to a birthday party that many of her friends are going to. It might be very tempting to call the parents hosting the party and ask why your daughter wasn’t invited — but a better approach might be to discuss options with your daughter. What can she do? She could confront the friend directly and ask why she was excluded, blow it off and make other plans, or perhaps she could approach the friend with humour (“I think the dog might have eaten my invitation before I got it”). It’s up to her to decide what to do and how she’ll handle things if she doesn’t get the outcome she wants. “Either way, working through the problem-solving process builds her confidence,” Arnall says.
Show unconditional love “Tell them and show them you love them every day,” Arnall says. “When you are feeling overwhelmed by life, it means a lot to have the love and support of your parents.” Touch still matters, she adds, even if it’s just a pat on the head or a quick shoulder rub.
Part of showing that love is taking the time to work with your child when she feels discouraged. Morgan says when Sarah complained about being “no good at math,” she made a big batch of chocolate chip cookies, then sat down with Sarah to work through her problems.
“I’m no math whiz myself,” Morgan says. “But I thought, What would help me feel more confident about math? So I started with easy things, like basic addition, that I knew she could do. Then we did the next step, and the next, until we were working on the problem her teacher had given. When we broke it down, it wasn’t as hard as she thought. Now Sarah loves math and especially word problems, the harder the better. She does them for fun, if you can imagine that.”