Feelings of insecurity or self-consciousness are not unusual in children. While some crave being the center of attention, others are mortified at being “seen,” at all. And of course, it’s a spectrum, with most kids landing somewhere between these two extremes. The opposite of insecurity is confidence. But, what does the word “confidence” mean? And more importantly, can it be nurtured in a healthy way in young children who might not have enough?
Webster defines confidence this way, “1. the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something; firm trust. 2. A feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities. 3. The state of feeling certain about the truth of something. All three aspects of confidence are important for youth development.
In the first definition of confidence, “someone,” or “something,” inspires children to trust the world they are in. Most of us began life by putting trust in our parents and primary caregivers. Having an adult fully present to meet basic needs, both physical and emotional, is important. Children need to know that the world is a safe and loving place if they are to feel confident.
In the second aspect of the definition, an assurance of our own abilities and value is what leads to confidence. All of us create belief systems about ourselves. It begins when we are young and is heavily influenced by the adults in our lives, both at home and in school. Positive feedback when we try something new or encouragement to try something a second or third time is essential.
Finally, being grounded in what’s true is the third aspect of confidence. This requires a highly developed sense of self-awareness. Our thoughts and feelings about ourselves might not always be objectively true. Once again, if a positive adult that the child trusts can influence the “truth” a child tells themselves, and make that optimistic and positive, they can grow a healthy self-image.
There are two traps to avoid when helping a child build confidence. Meaningless praise or criticisms based on unrealistically high expectations.
Go to any playground and you’ll hear celebratory phrases like, “great job,” or “Way to go Tommy!” This kind of feedback is fine in the middle of a little league game, but if practiced too often it does little to help a child build confidence. Broad phrases like, “good job,” are superficial and tends to focus on results rather than effort.
Feedback such as, “you have built quite a bridge using those legos,” observes and describes the effort. This kind of concrete statement helps children understand that they have a skill (uses legos to build things) and recognizes their effort and hard work. This helps kids feel like they can repeat the process, and do even better next time, which is what confidence is all about.
A child’s confidence is built or diminished by what they experience at home and at school. But, when that input is largely negative due to poverty, neglect, absentee or overcritical parenting confidence is not likely to grow.
The tutors and Saturday mentors at Operation Exodus are doing important work—the weighty task of guiding young people into a new and better truth about themselves, one that says they are capable and worthy, and that God loves them.
For some children, a lack of “something” or “someone” being there consistently to care for them or encourage them, can create feelings of mistrust, which erodes confidence. Or, there may be strong reactions to stress by the adults in the home creating feelings of fear or anxiety. This leads kids to feel that the world is not safe, and they develop defense mechanisms. This can be a primary source of major insecurity in children.
In other cases, a child might hear far more criticism than encouragement. Parents or caregivers may have expectations for a child’s behavior that do not match their maturity or skill level. At times the expectations have not been clearly defined or the children haven’t been given important tools, such as self-soothing. This environment is also likely to inhibit the growth of confidence.
Children coming from traumatic environments often have a brain that has been “re-wired” as a defense mechanism. Stress or anxiety can trigger defensive behaviors that can be easily misinterpreted by a teacher or an administrator as rebellion. Punitive, rather than restorative consequences can further feed the insecurities, and increase the anxiety. Before long there is a downward spiral that slides quickly into more serious consequences.
There is good news. New research indicates that the “wiring,” that takes place in children growing up in stressful or traumatic environments can be treated. With some hard work, and given some time in a safe, nurturing environment with caring adults, children can find healing. Turns out, the positive environment and quality mentoring that take place at Operation Exodus is just what experts are recommending.
Mentors who can build a relationship of trust with a young person have the transformative power to change that child’s understanding of the world and themselves. The tutors and Saturday mentors at Operation Exodus are doing important work—the weighty task of guiding young people into a new and better truth about themselves, one that says they are capable and worthy, and that God loves them.
Our volunteer mentors give up something precious, their Saturday mornings, to serve kids whose confidence may have been compromised early on in life. It takes time, patience, and a few other tools, tools we’d like we’d like to share with you below:
All children have a right to grow a healthy confidence in themselves, no matter what their circumstances are. If it is not taking place at home, or if they’ve had troubling encounters at school, a mentor willing to invest in a transformational relationship with the child can make all the difference.