Almost everyone confronts periods of self-doubt. What if the other kids don’t like me? What if I can’t remember the spelling words? What if my teacher thinks I’m not smart? In fact, those three questions were all uttered by self-doubting kids who needed my help. Self-doubt, it seems, is part of growing up.
I’ll never forget the moment that I confronted my own intense self-doubt about my math abilities. Although I was an excellent student in high school, I never felt capable in math. I survived math, but I didn’t conquer it. It was a statistics course in college, however, that sent my self-doubt into overdrive.
My negative self-talk sent me running to my professor’s office hours multiple times during the first month of the semester. After my fourth visit, he sat me down and told me something that changed everything. “I’m happy to help you if you feel you need it, but I see a competent student who isn’t actually struggling with statistics—it’s your negative belief about your ability that’s holding you back.” While that meeting didn’t completely erase the anxiety that lurked beneath the self-doubt, it did empower me to work through my statistics studies independently.
Young children have a tendency to engage in globalized thinking. They internalize small successes and failures and decide whether they can or can’t do something. You might hear a preschooler, for example, say something like, “No, I can’t swing. I’m not good at that.” They make global statements based on past experiences.
While these instances might seem harmless in the moment, self-doubt can grow in size over time. When children don’t learn to confront feelings of self-doubt, negative thinking can become their baseline. It’s very difficult to attempt new challenges when negative self-talk drags you down.
Parents can help children learn to squash self-doubt by uncovering the hidden worries and replacing negatives with positives.
Listen and validate. We all need time to vent our frustration, and sometimes that might sound like a string of negatives tied together with a healthy dose of self-doubt. That’s okay. It’s important to listen to your child before you attempt to help. You might think you know what’s really beneath the self-doubt, but your child might have a very different story to tell.
Listen to your child and validate his feelings. It’s okay to question our abilities at times; it’s what we do to overcome that feeling that’s important.
Uncover the emotions. Negative emotions are closely tied to self-doubt. In fact, a study published in Child Development found that children who suffered from high levels of anxiety and depression were more likely to experience self-doubt. Negative past experiences can also cause self-doubt long after you think the experience is resolved.
Ask your child to describe how he feels when self-doubt creeps in. Is he worried that he can’t complete a task? Is he embarrassed that he doesn’t have someone to sit with at lunch? Is he sad that math is hard? When your child unpacks his feelings, he can begin to work through them.
Zoom in. More often than not, when kids encounter intense feelings of self-doubt, they are overwhelmed by a task. Instead of focusing on the fact that he already knows how to dribble when joining a basketball team, for example, a child might take in the whole scene (the hoop, the other kids, the passing, the size of the court) and become lost in self-doubt.
Teach your child to zoom in on both strengths and weaknesses. Instead of looking through the wide-angle lens and assuming he can’t do something, he can zoom in to assess the positives and negatives and make a plan to overcome the negatives. (For example: I don’t know how to do a layup, but I can ask my coach for help.)
Teach realistic self-talk. It’s essential for negative thinkers to learn how to reframe their thoughts by countering negative self-talk with positive self-talk, but it’s also important to be realistic. If we constantly teach kids to challenge their negative thoughts with unrealistic or goal-oriented thoughts (I will get an A on this test!), we aren’t doing them any favors.
Have your child make a list of negative statements that run through his mind and then make another list of counterstatements that include steps to avoid the negative outcome. Instead of, “I’m terrible at math,” for example, your child might say, “I’m working really hard to understand my math homework.”
Teach visualization. Children often report feeling worried or anxious when self-doubt kicks in. It makes sense. Deep breathing and visualization can help.
The first step is to teach your child to use deep breathing. I find that many kids equate deep breathing with fast breathing. To teach them, I ask them to visualize blowing up a balloon. Cue your child to bring the imaginary balloon to his mouth, breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four and breathe out for four.
Once your child has the deep breathing down, teach him to visualize overcoming his source of self-doubt while using deep breathing to calm his worries.
Make corrections. Most parents understand the importance of modeling healthy habits, even when it comes to the words we use, but it’s easy to get caught up in negative self-talk without even realizing it. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “Oh man, I ruined the sauce—I’m the worst cook”? Our kids take their cues from us. Even when we’re kidding, we need to choose our words carefully. Make corrections to your own negative self-talk to show your kids that even adults need to reframe their thoughts and focus on the positive.