Building self-confidence in children and teens
Wednesday, February 12th, 2020
When it comes to discussing self-confidence in children and teens, the focus is typically on girls.
After all, they’re battling expectations that they should be impossibly thin and unfailingly nice.
But experts say boys’ self-confidence is also at risk because of gender stereotypes, which leave them, too, feeling inadequate when they believe they don’t meet expectations, and gives them few outlets to express their feelings.
“There’s this myth that boys don’t have as many feelings or they’re not as emotional,” says Rachel Busman, a senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “These are misperceptions. We need to be more nurturing of our boys, as well.”
But how do the adults in boys’ lives do that? We examine some of the challenges facing boys through the lens of Dr Busman; Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys; and Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, a clinical psychologist and school consultant.
School is harder for young boys
Boys are more impulsive and have a more difficult time sitting still and paying attention than girls do, says Dr Steiner-Adair.
Meanwhile, many schools aren’t designed for short breaks throughout the day that would help them — that would help all children.
“So when boys can’t sit and wait their turn and the class is too big, what happens is they become disruptive; they shout out the answer,” she says.
“And because they are disrupting, the fact that they got the answer right and just couldn’t hold on to it and wait their turn, doesn’t count.”
What does count is that they interrupted, and when they’re criticised repeatedly about it, it diminishes their self-esteem.
Not only that, “It also diminishes their love of academics and learning,” Dr Steiner-Adair says.
Give praise: If a child is struggling in school, teachers should go out of their way to look for opportunities to compliment him when he does do something right, even if it’s something small.
Not only does a steady influx of praise make children feel happier and more confident at school, but psychologists say that catching them being good can help positively shape their behaviour, too.
Challenge boys and allow them to develop skills: “You throw boys as a group into a very challenging situation, and let them figure it out and find their own leadership,” he says.
“They’ll come back thinking, ‘We did it. We did it.’ You’ll see a tonne of confidence.”
Boys are forced into a strict hierarchy in which they compare themselves mercilessly to other boys. “Boys are always asking themselves ‘Who’s the tallest? Who’s the fastest? Who’s the biggest?
Who’s the king of the hill?’” Dr Steiner-Adair says. “And within that come some real struggles. What if you’re not? What if you’re not athletic? That is a huge vulnerability for boys.”
Dr Busman say it’s important to emphasise the child’s unique qualities. Boys need to know that we all have different abilities and grow and learn at different rates.
Make your child media literate: Busman suggests watching TV with your child or discussing what they’re doing on the Internet. And if you see a particularly good role model, that’s a nice opportunity to call out his attributes.
Thompson notes that showcasing alternatives to the athletic culture with male role models such as artists, teachers, chefs, musicians shows boys there are different, legitimate ways they can follow their talents and still be valued.
“If you want to give boys confidence, then you give them the feeling that the skills they have are going to win them the respect of other men and boys.”
Boys are expected to “buck up”
Even today, societal norms often dictate that boys aren’t supposed to cry. “So what boys are taught is when you are sad, when you are upset, do not get sad, but get mad,” Dr Steiner-Adair says.
“We’re making some progress, but by and large the situation is still such that by the age of eight, a boy has to learn how not to cry.”
She notes that we ask this of boys just at the age where they’re developing the capacity for “really deeper, more meaningful emotions and empathy to disconnect from their own sadness and vulnerability.”
Later, these boys-turned-young men have to learn how to communicate their thoughts and emotions “without feeling that it’s somehow a violation of their masculinity.”
Let them cry: You can let boys know that they shouldn’t be ashamed of tears and that expressing feelings doesn’t mean they’re weak.
Be open about feelings: Parents can also validate their boys’ sadness or anger by encouraging them to talk about their emotions. Parents should also support their boys’ emotions, telling them that they’re okay and that everyone has them.
Teasing or bullying
Bullying isn’t healthy for either the bully or the victim. “When you have a gender code that says there is only a spot for one at the very, very top, then boys define themselves and make themselves better by pushing somebody else down,” Dr Steiner-Adair says.
“So we see a lot of subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, lateral aggression and we see a lot of teasing.” Any sign of weakness is fair game, including not being good at sports or even being too smart.
Encourage friendships and activities with girls: Playing with girls and interacting with them in school and in co-ed activities can cut down on competitiveness with other boys and give boys a chance to develop interests that are not traditionally masculine with less fear of ridicule.
From a young age, parents can encourage boys to be aware of how others think and teach chilren to advocate for themselves. While adults may need to intervene when bullying happens, Dr Busman says children should be taught to try to handle these situations for themselves.
Parents can talk to their sons about bullying in advance and role-play strategies for handling it.
For instance, it can help to come with a few lines a child can say if someone targets him to deflect what’s going on.
You can also strategise together to make a list of a few adults or friends he could go to for support. - childmind.org