Building confidence in children

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Building confidence in children

There are things you can do every day to give your child a confidence boost.

Think about some of the words you’d like to use about your child. Kind? Smart? Confident?

While it’s easy to describe a kind act or a smart test score, what does confidence in children really mean?

Is it being confident enough to stand up and give a speech at school? Or is it being confident to say no to peer pressure?

What is confidence?

The word ‘confident’ is derived from a latin word meaning ‘to trust’. So, we can understand confidence to mean a trust of one’s self.

Feeling confident doesn’t mean you necessarily believe you’re going to be the best at everything, or superior to others. Rather that you know you have the tools to try to succeed.

With children this might be something like feeling confident to try a new skill, like writing or riding a bike. Or we might need confidence when starting a new school or standing up to a bully.

What does a lack of confidence in children mean?

Children who don’t feel confident may experience higher levels of stress or anxiety than those who do. However, if children who lack confidence can learn how to control their stress, it can lead to greater success, says child psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard.

“Stress doesn’t mean failure, top athletes use stress to get across the finish line,” says Rita. “Watch the 100m runners at the start line. They’re jumping around to move all the extra adrenaline around their body. They’re blowing out air from their mouths hard to get rid of the extra oxygen. This is a reaction to the high stress of the moment. Athletes know they need 50% anxiety for 100% performance.”

Once children know how to recognise these anxious symptoms, they can learn how to control and use them. “The key to coping with moments of high stress, and building resilience and confidence in children, is preparation,” says Rita.

Giving your children tools and strategies they can use to ease feelings of panic or stress can help build their sense of confidence and ability to cope with tricky situations.

How to build confidence in children

Rita suggests trying one or more of the following exercises to help your child feel more confident.

Exercise 1. Visualise the danger

If your child is stressed about something like public speaking or starting a new school, Rita suggests preparing for the moment by acting it out. Over and over.

“Ask your child to visualise the speech or moment they walk through the gates. Get them to describe how they think they might feel. Then suggest things they could do to cope with those feelings.”

Some ways to cope:

  • Tensing and relaxing different parts of the body like balling your fists then relaxing hands; curling toes then letting go etc.
  • Breathing in for three, then breathing out for six, can help slow breathing and a racing heart.
  • Suggest finding a safe spot – a friendly face to focus on, or a place they like to sit in the playground. Ask them to imagine going to that place and starting to feel better.

Exercise 2. Flip the feeling

Stress in kids can lead to feelings of high emotion that might come out in the form of an emotional outburst, crying or tantrum. If this happens, once calm, ask your child to draw a picture of what that feeling was. What colour was it? Was it big and messy and crazy?

Then go and do something that you know helps bring joy, like jumping on the trampoline, petting the dog or having a snack.

Go back to the paper and ask your child how they feel now. Hopefully the drawing won’t be as busy or stressful.

“This exercise can help your child see how they can control big feelings and find ways to help them feel better quickly,” says Rita.

Exercise 3. Armour up

For young children who’re experiencing a lack of confidence when doing something new, maybe the first sleep-over or starting school, giving them a sense of protection can help.

“Ask your child to imagine putting on a protective armour,” says Rita. “Act it out, help them get their armour on.”

This simple task can give your child a sense of security they can use throughout the day when they’re feeling stressed.

Exercise 4. Tell a hero story

If your child is finding it hard to get to sleep, or is having disturbed sleep because of stress, try and put them in a confident headspace just before bedtime. One way to do this, says Rita, is with a story where they can be the superhero.

“Tell a story, making your child the hero of the tale, and explain to them how the hero is faced with a challenge or problem and figures out how to solve it. As the story goes on, lower your tone and slow your pace of voice. This can help downregulate the feelings and symptoms of high anxiety.”

Exercise 5. Make up a mantra

If your child is feeling nervous or anxious about something, telling them everything will be fine might not help much. It’s better, says Rita, to acknowledge and validate the feelings, but then find ways to help balance that out.

“Suggest that they have a mantra that starts by acknowledging the feelings of stress, but refocuses to something positive. This might be, ‘Even though I’m scared of doing my speech, I have prepared and practiced and I’m going to do my best’. Or ‘Even though I don’t feel happy today, I am looking forward to seeing my friend in the playground’. Encourage your child to figure out what’s in their toolbox that they can lean on or look forward to.”

Help and support for kids and parents

There are a lot of things we can do as parents that might help our children feel confident says Rita.

“Parents need to use their imagination and find things their child loves to do – like sports or games – and use those things to help them see what’s positive. Parents also need to be calm and confident, so children can see and mirror that behaviour.”

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, we have useful tools and resources for the whole family.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

The program includes online courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There is also confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours. Plus, there are resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021


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