Q:I am a parent to an 11-year-old son who is sweet, smart, physically active and in touch with his emotions, but lately, he’s been getting inside his head and seems to think up scenarios that cause him to feel worse about himself—and they are never true. What are some ways that I can build up his self-confidence?
It is not surprising to hear about an 11-year-old who is out of sorts during these pandemic times. Not much is as it was pre-pandemic, when kids attended school in person unleashed by safety protocols, when they interacted with peers and schoolmates, and where they had many reflective surfaces for testing behavior and figuring out who they are. Kids, especially tweens and teens, are struggling to establish who they are in this new context (stuck at home, alone) because it sure isn’t like it was.
How hard it is for a parent to see the child she has known morph into someone else. And, of course, you are worried and want to help him. The first thing I wonder is if you are leaking? Does your sweet, smart, active son know you are concerned? As you have no doubt experienced in other times of his life, your son could be picking up on your worries and concerns and adopting them. There are some children who enjoy the attention they get when parents are worried. Do you have other children? His position in the family could also have something to do with his behavior.
That your son is conjuring up “failure” scenarios indeed points to his current feelings of helplessness or inadequacy. There sure aren’t many ways for kids to prove themselves these days, to feel competent and to feel self-reliant. In a sea of Zoom faces, they may or may not be called on, may or may not feel successful. What else is there? And there is not much they can do to control those circumstances. They can practice sports skills, but they can’t compete. They can create art, but no friends are oooing and ahhhing. The fuel that a child gets from interacting with peers, from feedback, from someone laughing at his jokes just isn’t there. His power sources have been cut off.
Without knowing your son, it is hard for me to make suggestions about what you can do to help him regain his confidence. What I can tell you is that it is not the parent who builds her child’s self-confidence. Like self-esteem, self-confidence is intrinsic, springing forth from the inside. It is not something that someone else can build inside another person.
With this reality in mind, let’s think about ways you can set your son up to feel competent and in control. That is certainly one way through this quagmire. Engaging him in pursuits, challenges and activities at which he can be successful can chase some of negativity away. Pondering what that might be, I came up with:
Creating an outside obstacle course for the family.
Teaching a younger child how to do something at which your son excels.
Paying him well for doing a real chore, one that really helps you (raking the hillside, washing the house windows, organizing your kitchen drawers).
Learning to do something brand new … and teach you.
Create a summer plan for himself, in the event that we are able to go free.
Let’s help your son to think forward and begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. I am not suggesting that you be a “pollyana.” These are seriously awful times, but things will change. Planning what you will do when … helps the child to break free of the quick sand.
I have to say that there is the possibility that something else is going on causing your son to be on shaky emotional grounds. If you are seeing no change, not even a glimmer of your old son, it may be time to consult a mental health professional.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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