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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 29-Oct-15 17:41:06

Guest post: "Praise them till they blush": Instilling confidence in kids

A third of young people describe themselves as 'not confident' - but what can you do to help build your child's self-esteem? As part of Sky Academy's Confidence Month, Justine Roberts dissects Mumsnetters' wisdom.

Justine Roberts

Mumsnet CEO

Posted on: Thu 29-Oct-15 17:41:06

(15 comments )

Lead photo

"Let them see you failing at things, picking yourself up and carrying on. Resilience is a skill."

There are probably a few things we'd all wish for our children - contentment, a sense of purpose and commitment, loving relationships, a fierce devotion to their mums - and most of us would put 'confidence' on that list. Not the sort of brittle over-confidence that can accompany insensitive behaviour or selfishness, but a sense of their own innate worth that will be strong and flexible enough to withstand worries about their appearance, their exam results or their Instagram follower count.

Confidence - and its lack - among our kids is one of the many themes that has run throughout conversations on Mumsnet over the last 15 years, so when Sky Academy asked us to participate in their Confidence month we were happy to take part. As well as loads of individual threads, we've seen thoughtful contributions on threads about the government's Body Confidence initiative, posts on various campaigns, and debates about initiatives run by other organisations.

A YouGov poll of 1600 11-24 year olds for Sky suggests that a good one-third feel 'not confident' overall, with a particular trough among 17 year olds (of whom 45% do not feel confident). There was also a difference between girls and boys; two-thirds of girls' confidence is influenced by how attractive they feel, compared to just 46% of boys, and 61% of girls struggle with confidence when starting at a school, college or job, compared to 46% of boys. (You can see the whole survey here if you want to have a gander.)

As parents, it can be an agonising topic: so much of the environment our children operate in seems to be precision-tooled to attack their self-esteem and generally de-Tiggerise them, and there are few things more painful than knowing that your child is feeling miserable. And of course, when factors like exam stress, first relationship forays and friendship struggles all occur at around the same time, things can take a nosedive however hard you try (hello, 17-year-olds - it gets better, we promise). As ever though, a ramble through some threads on the topic throws up some robust good sense about strategies for building up your child. Here's a boiled-down summary of MNers' wisdom over the years (which I'm intending to put into practice post haste).

Try not to worry too much about the occasional bout of low self-confidence: they're a part of the human condition for most of us, and growing up can (quite frankly) be pretty rough at times.


- Don't critique them for things they can't help or change; nobody can be perfect. If you must criticise (and goodness knows it's hard not to sometimes), try to accompany it with kind, practical suggestions for improvement. Be very, very careful with remarks about their appearance and if in doubt, say nowt.

- As with toddlers, so with teens: 'catch them being good' and praise them until they blush and leave the room. (For bonus points, do this in front of their mates.)

- Few things build self-confidence as effectively as taking on new challenges and acquiring new skills; it's one reason that people tend to feel more self-confident as they move into adulthood (and realise that actually, they can boil an egg without having the emergency services on standby). Lots of MNers suggest drama clubs for retiring little 'uns; Scouts and Guides have the seal of approval for older children; for teens, Duke of Edinburgh Awards schemes get a lot of shout-outs, and first jobs can do wonders for confidence as well as for pocket money. For older teens, volunteering in a field they're interested in can have multiple benefits.

- Let them see you failing at things, picking yourself up and carrying on. Resilience is a skill and it helps to have an example to follow.

- Try never to let your children hear the phrase 'I can't eat that, I'm on a diet'. You might well have good reasons for dodging the biscuits, but an emphasis on enjoying a range of foods, eating normally and enjoying the occasional treat is what most children need.

- Spending unpressurised time with your children, just showing them that you enjoy their company, can be enormously boosting. You may have to log off from Mumsnet for this bit, but I've checked our T&Cs and apparently that is allowed <stares at staff>.

- Some people just like a spot of solitude and are comfortable with one well-chosen friend and a pile of books; a quiet child in a family of extroverts might just be trying to get some peace. Self-confidence doesn't have to be about jazz-hands and paragliding. (Although that combination does sound excellent.)

- Don't let them join social networks if they're under the cut-off age, and once they're old enough to join, keep an eye on their activity. Friend them on Facebook, follow them on Instagram, and try to get a sense of what they're seeing. Talk to them about the realities of image manipulation; that sleb's claim that she (or he) wakes up in the morning looking like this may not be entirely true, and not all teens will realise this unless it's pointed out.

- If you want to start a conversation but are coming up against mute refusal, there's the tried-and-tested car technique (lots of kids will open up if your eyes are on the road, not boring into their soul); or use your own experience to broach the topic ('I had a growth spurt when I was 14 - it made me feel incredibly self-conscious.')

- Try not to worry too much about the occasional bout of low self-confidence: they're a part of the human condition for most of us, and growing up can (quite frankly) be pretty rough at times. The key is to keep the lines of communication open, and be alert for normal periods of low mood turning into something more systematic. If you're ever really worried about your child's mental health, of course, you should talk to your GP or to staff at your child's school; you could also check out our teens mental health guide.

Sky Academy uses the power of TV, creativity and sport to help young people unlock their potential, building confidence, communication, creativity, resilience, planning and teamwork, in young people. The initiatives help build practical skills, experience and confidence, harnessing Sky's strengths in media and technology, as well as the passion and expertise of its people. Since launching in November 2013, Sky Academy has helped over 250,000 young people across the UK and Ireland, with a goal of helping one million by 2020. For more information on Sky Academy, visit their website or follow Sky Academy on Twitter.

By Justine Roberts

Twitter: @Justine_Roberts

Toadsrevisited Fri 30-Oct-15 13:46:08

What a good topic to bring up! I found it weird that, as a teacher, using different kinds of praise is seen as key to motivate pupils, and yet it is rarely mentioned in terms of parenting.

The dangers of vague praise ('how lovely!') or of praising achievement over effort ('aren't you a great artist' rather than 'i loved how you tried to do...') are well known in the classroom and I try to do this at home too. Carol Dweck is a really helpful researcher on this.

EElisavetaOfBelsornia Fri 30-Oct-15 13:59:55

Thank you for this, really thought provoking. I do agree about the praise, it can be quite uncomfortable for the British in me, but it's so important to hear positive feedback.

WowOoo Fri 30-Oct-15 19:46:41

Just what I needed to read.

I do try to be positive or constructive. It basically means, to me, to think before I speak.
But, it's so hard after a tough day at work when there's still loads to do and your house is a hellhole.

My eldest son knows what resilience means. His sense of achievement when he'd tried and failed and but tried again and again finally got there really is mood boosting!
It's worth putting up with the moaning and cursing to see his proud face.

G1veMeStrength Fri 30-Oct-15 21:54:41

I LOVE that Justine is doing a guest post. Erm... Welcome to MN... Come on in (to your own website) grin

I have an unpraisable child. He hates praise, attention, any sort of limelight. For him self esteem seems to be boosted by having a good laugh together so we do that instead.

As an aside I am still disappointed in Mumsnet cosying up to Sky. I know the academy thing sounds great but ffs has everyone forgotten the Milly Dowler voicemail hacking?

SealSong Sat 31-Oct-15 00:15:55

Building confidence is much less about giving the child praise and much more about them acquiring self confidence through being allowed to attempt and achieve things under their own steam, whether that's learning how to boil an egg, getting good on a climbing wall, being able to comfortably socialise with adults or children or being able to stick up for themselves.
Praise and encouragement has a supporting role in this, but the main drivers to confidence are experiential IMO. Praise for effort, determination, self control etc is the most helpful kind of praise, alongside helping the less confident identify and recognise the successes they are having and the positive steps they are taking, even if seemingly small steps.
Confidence is learned, not given.

Themodernuriahheep Sat 31-Oct-15 00:56:58

Welcome Justine ( ironic grin). An excellent topic.

I agree with much of this, but one needs to aim off a bit sometimes. One runs the risk of " you would say that, you're my mum." Ie they discount maternal or indeed family praise, even if they are simultaneously devastated if you don't notice.

I've recently tried not only the classroom style, but also the " thank you for sparing dad/me from having to.. "And the " may I ask how you do x?" The awful thing there us they tell you at triple speed, get frustrated, and take over, leaving you unskilled.

And I think praising everything devalues it, for many teens. It's a bit like "have a nice day". Somehow I think it's getting the balance right between attention, understanding, appreciation, and praise. As well as the courtesy that should be inherent between everyone, in family or public surroundings.

WildStallions Sat 31-Oct-15 13:30:11

Whether you praise for effort or for achievement you are still trying to manipulate your children.

You are still showing them conditional love rather than unconditional love.

Alfie Kohn has written lots about praise and unconditional love. I think his ideas are much better than carol dwecks.

In the end I think my DC are confident because I am confident.

gleegeek Sat 31-Oct-15 15:39:28

G1veMeStrength thank you! I too have an unpraisable child - can't bear to be noticed - and often feels she doesn't deserve the praise. Very difficult knowing how to build self-confidence in the chronically underconfident, but encouraging out of school interests seems to help and also agreeing that everything doesn't have to be a competition. Currently Dd seems to be enjoying my pain and frustration at teaching myself to knit!

Believeitornot Sat 31-Oct-15 16:29:30

I talk to my children about their achievements and show an interest. This boosts their confidence as they're happy to talk about what they've done.
I also point out where they've done something after they've been reluctant to do so, again boosting confidence.
I also show unconditional love - eg if they're naughty, I've told them off and they're upset I will still Cuddle and reassure them but reinforce why they were told off.

I remember being crushed when my mum would cheer on my brother for something and not me when I did the same. Or I was told off for things I couldn't help.

Lweji Sat 31-Oct-15 16:37:05

On the subject of praise, we need to be careful about what we praise and if we do give praise for actual things to be proud about.

Praise for just good grades for example, can reinforce the feeling that they are valued for their grades.

Praise for things that are less than well accomplished will make them doubt the praise given.

So, praise for different things (including the capacity to stand up to you) and for actual achievements (or the effort given).

hesterton Sat 31-Oct-15 20:22:04

I bang on about this but I also think it's incredibly important with older teens to hand some stuff back to them when there are problems with behaviours which are a bit self destructive. Saying (as you hand over the letter from 6th form saying her attendance was shocking, or you have been woken by her unpleasant bf shouting) 'I know you can sort this, I'll leave it to you - I have total trust in you', was so much more effective than any other strategy. Perticularly more effective than getting cross which always made things worse. They need to feel you believe in them even if you have to fake it to make it.

She did sort it all and is a wonderful, capable woman now.

hesterton Sat 31-Oct-15 20:22:45

Oh gosh sorry about dreadful typos.

Shockers Sun 01-Nov-15 08:46:33

I was an unpraisable child. My grandmother got around this by saying things like, 'You are very observant.'

I liked that.

I hated people telling me I was a good girl. I didn't feel good.

Lweji Sun 01-Nov-15 09:24:27

What your mother did was praise. smile

Praise like saying "good girl" is not good at all.

But, still you shouldn't give praise for qualities, but for actions.

Such as: you did really well there, good observation, you behaved quite well.

Mintyy Sun 08-Nov-15 15:07:59

I thought the latest thinking was we are not doing our children any favours by praising them for every last little thing.

I very much agree with SealSong's post above.

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