Welcome to Capable Kids Q&A, where you send me your dilemmas about lovingly nudging your kids towards a thriving can-do spirit, and I pull together the research, expertise, and wisdom out there to bring you encouragement and ideas. (Thank you for sending your great questions; keep them coming.)
Q: Hi Sharon! I was having a discussion with my 16-year-old daughter about confidence. She’s a very smart girl with lots of wonderful character traits but she lacks confidence and is aware of that. She and I are both wondering how to boost her confidence.
A: Ouch—are there any former 16-year-old girls out there who don’t relate to this, at least a little bit? We know that research shows that girls’ confidence typically takes a nosedive at puberty. The reasons are complex and not entirely clear, but it’s fair to guess that, among other reasons, gaining the normal 20 to 50 pounds of puberty weight knocks the body confidence of growing girls in a world that favors unattainable female bodies.
So what do we do? It’s great to say positive things to our daughters, but it is even better to give her a chance to do positive things.
In the 1970s, psychologist Albert Bandura developed the theory of “self-efficacy”—in other words, what we believe about our ability to do and accomplish things. It’s action-oriented confidence. People with higher self-efficacy—people who believe they can handle the challenges in their lives—do better on numerous mental health and life satisfaction measures. The good news is that the more tasks and challenges we successfully handle, the more those “mastery experiences” build our sense of self-efficacy. And that self-efficacy transfers to other parts of our lives, making us stronger overall. (I wrote about how self-efficacy can help our kids through the pandemic, and my friend Jessica Lahey wrote about how self-efficacy can even help protect kids from addiction.)
You don’t say exactly how your daughter lacks confidence (Is she afraid to speak up? Is she loathe to risk embarrassment or failure? Does she worry over her body?)—but, regardless, the approach can be the same: Find more challenges and tasks to take on and practice learning, failing, and, if all goes well, mastering. That feeling of self-efficacy grows and grows the more we feed it mastery experiences, and the good news is that we can pick those experiences according to our life circumstances and tastes. The only requirement is that they be a little challenging. Some ideas:
- Ask her for help at home. Can she cook? Use a hammer, screwdriver, wrench, plunger, and lawnmower? Does she help with the cleaning chores? All of these are not only important life skills, they’re also chances for her to feel the satisfaction of knowing she is capable of managing the day-to-day. Look for ways to involve her in the running of the household. Handy is a better feeling than helpless.
- Encourage her to get a job. At work, she’ll be asked to do innumerable new tasks she hasn’t done before—think interviewing, dealing with customers, managing unfamiliar equipment, balancing competing priorities, and so much more. Challenge is built in, and many kids take to assignments from other adults far better than they take to tasks given by their parents. (Just ask any elementary school teacher assigning classroom jobs to enthusiastic students—kids like to feel useful when they’re not saying, “why do I have to…?” to their parents.)
- Find a volunteer opportunity that suits her. It’s inarguable: Helping people feels amazing. Whether it’s practicing English with new immigrants at the library or playing cards with seniors, doing something that she likes that helps someone else multiplies not only both people’s joy, but also your daughter’s sense of purpose and capability. Self-efficacy!
- Help her focus on what she can do with her body, not how it looks. Sports are a great example of a body challenge that’s all about doing, with plenty of chances for both failure (Which is good! Failure is OK!) and mastery built right in. The boost to self-efficacy she gets from beating her 5K time? Way better than 100 likes on Insta for her latest selfie. Speaking of looks, parents can try to focus less on telling her how beautiful she is—and if we must, we can praise a daughter’s sense of style (which she controls) over her looks (which she does not).
- Hesitate before you jump in. Whether your daughter is nervous about making a phone call, reaching out to a teacher, or managing a social dilemma, take a pause. Instead of problem-solving—oh, how good it feels to fix things for our kids!—we can stop and ask, “What do you think you’ll do next?” Our job is to kindly express the unshakable confidence that she can handle her dilemma. Even if her dilemma is just getting herself up in the morning and getting herself to the bus stop on time. If, after she realizes you’re really passing her the reins on these little stumbling blocks and responsibilities, she still wants advice, feel free to offer some. But remember—and be sure she knows—that it’s in her hands, that it’ll be fine (even if it goes wrong), and that you’re here for her.
I hope that helps, and please let me know how it goes. (On that note, don’t miss our first Q&A Update below.)
Q&A Update: Remember the 12-year-old who didn’t want to go to sleepaway camp? He’s staying home this summer and is signed up for some day camps, which mom says will still be a challenge for him. Sounds like a great balance of nudging and nurturing!