“I am bad at football,” my daughter told me a few weeks ago. “The other kids in school made fun of me. I cannot see the ball coming to me. I cannot kick it on time. I am a terrible football player.”
After hearing her out completely and acknowledging her disappointment, I told her that I know this is a challenge for her now. “But if you practice,” I added, "you will do well. I can help you.”
Yet, she persisted. “But I am dumb. I cannot focus!”
Her eyes filled with tears before she dealt a final blow to herself. “I am bad at everything!”
The next day, her father bought her a football and took her to the park to practice with her. She still insisted that she was no good at the sport but was finally willing to try and move forward. Eventually, the more she familiarised herself with the ball and got a feel of it, the more confident she became.
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Her negative self-talk continues but we try to focus on her strengths and talk about how we can improve ourselves every day, even in small ways.
As parents, we feel helpless when children express dismay or anguish about being unable to do something well. The stream of negative self-talk then builds up into a crescendo. It can be difficult for us to watch our children be so hard on themselves and neglect their self-worth.
Our first instinct is to try and pull them out of the negativity by playing down their anxieties. However, it is important to listen to them and to allow them to express their feelings, and acknowledge their concerns.
It is important to remember though, that negative self-talk is different from self-pity. When one wallows in self-pity, one often blames the world for their problems. Negative talk however, is more along the lines of “I am terrible at math” or “I will never be good at drawing” or “I will always be the worst in my class”. With this, children place the blame squarely on themselves.
If you notice this pattern in your children, you will want to show them you are on their side and try to work on solutions together. Here are some ways to work on nurturing their self-esteem and confidence.
Manisha Bhargava, the CEO of Gyanlink, and Delhi-based mother of a 2-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 13-year-old. Each of them needs different strategies when it comes to helping them through their feelings of self-doubt. A few weeks ago, Bhargava’s 9-year-old son came home from school and saw her making dosas on the tawa. He wanted to have a go at making them, so Bhargava agreed.
“He tried to make the dosa but got upset that he was not able to make it in the right shape or roll it over on to the other side,” she says. “He got frustrated and said that he will never be good at it.”
“Let us do it again,” Bhargava told him, and he was surprised that she was willing to give him another chance. She proceeded to give him specific instructions to make the dosa and after a few attempts, he succeeded. “He made a wonderful dosa and here was my chance to get him to introspect,” she says. “I told him to think about why it had worked this time...none of us make perfect dosas in our first attempt. It takes practice.”
Bhargava believes that when you tell your child “let’s do it together,” they know they have guidance and are willing to explore. They understand that unless you keep trying, you won’t get better. You can show them that while they don’t have control over an event, they do have control over how they choose to react to it.
Build confidence as a long-term, continuing process
Veena Mahesh is based in Pune and is a mother to a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year son. “They are two children with contrasting temperaments,” she says. “My daughter is a dominant force at home and outside the house. For a long time, this did not help my younger son’s confidence level.”
A few years ago, when Mahesh was celebrating her birthday, she was surprised that her son did not make his customary birthday card for her. He confessed that he felt that his artwork was not as good as his older sister’s. Mahesh asked him in genuine in wonder what on earth he was talking about: “You know how much I love stick figures and those adorable balloon hands and bird feet that you make,” she told him. “Your style is different and your sister’s style is different. Why can't I love both? Just because I love grapes, does that mean I can't love mangoes too?” Mahesh recalled that upon hearing that, her son was all smiles and raced off to draw her a card.
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Building a child’s confidence is a continuous process, Mahesh says. “We put in years of constant, relentless, unceasing affirmation and encouragement and it came from his parents, sibling, teachers, and even his grandparents whenever they visited,” she says. “Both children have always received praise, encouragement, hugs, and kisses in equal measure. There was no question of competition between them. In fact, quarrels notwithstanding, they have a deep affection for each other and a close bond.”
During the pandemic, Mahesh’s daughter, who was so used to being with people, spiralled into a negative slump. “My son, during that time, was suddenly not bothered so much by low self-esteem anymore,” says Mahesh. “Perhaps seeing his older sister in a slump made him realize that all of us have our ups and downs." When lockdown ended, Mahesh's son participated in an inter-house football contest impressed the coach who then selected him for the U-14 football team even before the tryouts.
Use the power of words well
My daughter’s school works continuously on feelings of low self-esteem and negative self-talk. They use posters and slides with specific strategies that they repeat everyday before the start of the day’s activities, some of which are:
Instead of saying "I'm rubbish at this," try thinking "What can I do to improve?"
Instead of saying “this will do,” try thinking “is this my best work?”
Instead of saying “I just can't do this," try thinking “I am going to try a different way".
Instead of saying "I'm not clever enough to do this," try thinking "I will learn how to do this”.
It is incredible how a simple switch in words and perspective can help our children realise that they can work even tricky situations out and move forward.
I have the habit of putting myself down too, sometimes in front of my daughter. I no longer use words like ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’ to describe myself, even in jest. I celebrate my positive traits and even my body type in front of her, openly and unequivocally. It is a long road but when we continuously acknowledge and encourage our children, we can get them to start believing that they are capable young people who can grow, move forward, and do better.
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Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist who lives in Mumbai.