Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you are an essential part of your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while building a sense of confidence in your child so that they can work toward their goals and succeed in school and life.
Confidence simply means a belief in self. But, from where does that confidence come? It begins with the trusting relationship you work to develop with your child. The bond you have with your child forms a solid foundation from which your child can feel safe to explore the world.
Two-year-olds build their social and emotional skills through loving interactions with you and your responses to their needs. As children develop their social and emotional skills, they also build their sense of confidence. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can foster confidence through your relationship with your child by focusing your attention on helping your child grow social and emotional skills. Confidence is…
- Self-awareness: your child’s deepening sense of who they are, understanding their identity and their strengths and limitations.
- Self-management: your child learning to manage their emotions constructively, such as when you help them calm down when they’re upset.
- Social awareness: your child’s ability to see from another’s perspective and to empathize with others.
- Relationship skills: your child’s new capacity to initiate, grow, and sustain healthy relationships with others.
- Responsible decision making: laying the groundwork for your child’s ability to reflect – before choosing words or actions – on the consequences in order to not cause harm.
Emerging confidence in children begins with confident parents — parents who are committed to learning from and with their child. Confident parents are not perfect. They simply offer themselves the grace and permission to reflect on and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes do not define who they are.
The key to many parenting challenges, like building confidence, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Whether it’s your 2-year-old crying uncontrollably when you leave their sight or your own feelings of inadequacy when trying to respond to your child’s frustration, establishing regular ways to build a trusting connection along with teaching your child vital skills will build confidence.
Today, in the short term, building confidence can create
- trust in the reactions of adults based on consistent responses;
- trust in one’s self to try new things; and
- an assurance that you are on the right track and you are safe.
Tomorrow, in the long term, building confidence in your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child build confidence. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about building confidence by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking and understanding of their own and others’ feelings. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts and feelings about confronting challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- works in collaboration with you making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life; and
- grows their self-control, social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think I feel?” Two-year-olds do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. They will need your support to be successful.
- For example, if your child is making a disagreeable facial expression, say, “Freeze,” like a game. Pull out the mirror, ask them to repeat the face, and ask about what that facial expression represents. For example, “Your eyebrows are squished down, and there’s a line in your forehead. Are you feeling mad?”
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking, “What do you think this character is thinking? What do you think that character is feeling?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling — or buried in their own feelings — help them by sharing what you think others are feeling. You could say: “I wonder if that person is feeling sad because their head is hanging down and their mouth is frowning. Do you think they feel sad?” Or, “I think that person might be feeling angry because their face is red and their eyebrows are scrunched up. Do you think they feel angry?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This can help reduce the length and strength of tantrums as your child gains emotional competence.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all of this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s confidence. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is going through.1 Here are some examples:
- Two-year-olds are starting to see themselves as their own unique, individual person. They develop the understanding that they can have their own thoughts and feelings and someone else could have different thoughts and feelings. This is key for beginning to empathize with a thought or feeling that is different from their own such as, “Why is my friend sad because I got to eat all of the cookies?”
- Two-year-olds are eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- Two-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- Two-year-olds can recognize common feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger.
- Two-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- Two-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- During reading time, select a book with faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings. Point out how you can tell each face is feeling each feeling, and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- After reading a story together, act out the story and use feeling words and expressions to match how the characters were feeling throughout the story. This expands their feelings vocabulary and teaches them how to recognize a wide range of perspectives and feelings that they might not encounter in day-to-day interactions with others.
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about how you are feeling, why you are feeling that way, and what signs you are giving even when it’s not a comfortable feeling. “I am frustrated right now because I cannot get the seat belt to work. Can you tell? My face is red and getting hot.”
- Talk aloud about the ways you respond to your own big feelings: “I’m going to take a few deep breaths before trying again and see if that helps.”
- Develop empathetic thinking. In addition to developing these essential skills that lead your children to build confidence, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to contribute to your child’s thinking. For example, if your child sees their friend crying, you could say:
- “It looks like your friend is crying. Do you think they are feeling sad?”
- “What do you think we could do to make them feel better? Do you think we could go over and check on them?”
- Play act anger. In a calm moment, create a drama in which you feel angry. Describe how you are feeling and why. “This doll took my toy. I feel so mad. My face feels hot. I feel like a want to growl.” Then, shift to what could make you feel better. “How could I help myself feel better?” you might ask your child. Create ideas and try them out together. “I could hug a pillow tight. I could draw with crayons or pound on playdoh.” Make sure that the ideas you try are ones you want to teach your child to use when they are truly angry.
- Practice deep breathing. When you are putting your child to bed, give a teddy bear a ride on your tummy as you breathe in and out deeply. Have your child try it.
Use play acting when your child is angry. Gently remind: “Do you remember how we felt better when we play acted that we were angry?” If your child can’t recall, show them how you hug a pillow tightly to help yourself feel better. Don’t forget to take deep breaths together.
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Two-to-three-year-olds are striving for independence, and it may create a power struggle if you are too directive about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.
- Allow your child the chance to take steps to meet their big challenges, whether they are working on tasting new foods for the first time, exploring the objects in their environment, or attempting to communicate with new words or phrases.
- Consider how you can create the conditions to support their success like creating a quiet, organized environment with age-appropriate board books, toys, or creative supplies.
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice, so they can learn how to do those new tasks well and independently. You can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work hard toward a goal. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “Show me you can tell me what you are feeling.”
- Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain skills over time.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you squeezed your pillow like we practiced.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the unfamiliar. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you enjoyed meeting my friend Susie. Anna is kind too. You might enjoy meeting her today.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like:
- “You seem worried about going into this new store. I’ll hold you so that you feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would your bear help you feel better?”
- Take steps to support your child if they experience separation anxiety. Be certain you are placing your child in the care of someone you trust so that you feel safe leaving your child in that person’s care. Give your child a piece of you (blanket, scarf) to have while you’re gone. Express your love and explain to them when you will return in terms of activities: “You’ll finish lunch, and then I’ll be back!” Leave without lingering but don’t sneak out.
Separation anxiety, though developmentally normal, can be stressful for both parent and child. Take deep breaths and time to calm down after leaving your child in caring hands.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You tried hard to build that tower. That’s great!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you go down the slide by yourself, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you went down the slide by yourself. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when all is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. If your child cried when you had to leave the playground yesterday but seems perfectly content today, notice their newfound comfort. “I notice you are OK as we leave the playground today. That’s very helpful!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments like a fear or insecurity to go away in order to recognize effort. For example, you don’t have to wait until your two-year-old is able to sleep through the night to recognize they are doing better at their sleep routine. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “You stayed in your bed. I like seeing that!”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.