My 5-year-old son has quirks that never bothered him until other kids started pointing them out. I love that he has an independent and eccentric personality at home, and I don't want that to change. How do I help him build his confidence and self-esteem at an early age?
Dear Confidence-Boosting Mama,
When our children become old enough to possibly feel rejected by their peers, it makes us miss the days of baby-proofing, when we could clearly identify safety hazards and do something about it (like canvassing the house with those plastic outlet covers). As our children get older, we realize how important it is to identify and resolve those emotional safety hazards, but unfortunately, they don't make outlet covers for that.
Children around age 5 are pretty famous for being blunt. They haven't quite gotten the social graces of not staring, pointing, or making cringe-worthy comments. We view what they say as embarrassing or hurtful, but they are often simply stating what they see, like a narrator of their own experience. They haven't yet internalized those things called social norms!
Regardless of the intention of the other children pointing out your son's unique habits, what matters most is he feels bothered by something about himself that didn't bother him before other kids noticed. You are right that this is a great opportunity to work on building confidence and a healthy self-esteem and to figure out the balance between embracing his individuality and feeling comfortable with peers. Here's how I would go about it.
Praise Specific Traits and Behaviors
To focus on building confidence and self-esteem at home, praise specific traits and behaviors, like "I just love how you used your imagination to make up that fun game! You can be so creative!" Remember that when praising, it's important that the praise is selective and genuine. If you are trumpeting "good job!" every five seconds, it becomes meaningless.
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong
Celebrate Differences in Others
Around this age, children are becoming more aware of how they are the same and different, so you can also weave into daily conversations how it's really cool that everyone is unique. Ask your son what he thinks makes him different from other kids, and what he likes or doesn't like about those differences. Include what you love about his differences. This consistent positive messaging from parents plays an important role in each child feeling confident with strong self-esteem.
Observe His Peer Interactions
If you think your child is being picked on by his peers for his unique traits, you need to shift gears from building confidence at home to watching what's happening in the rest of his world. Your child may notice other kids' responses as negative, or he may not. Observe the interactions if possible, talk to his teachers about what they see, and keep talking to your son. He may want to change his habits so that he feels more comfortable with other kids, or you may judge that it will help him get along better with other children to make some changes. Either way, you can simultaneously give him the message that he is loved for exactly who he is in his family.
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Give Him Tools to Cope
The reality of social development is we do have social expectations that we learn to conform to as we get older. I know we want our children to love who they are all the time, but there are times that we may also help them tweak behaviors. Part of our job description as parents is to coach them through their growth as a social being in the world. Targeting confidence and self-esteem lays the foundation of emotional safety at home, which gives our children the tools to manage what we can't control in other parts of their world.
What matters is you are there for him, celebrating who he is as a person, every step of the way. As he figures out who he is in the world, one social phase at a time, he will know at his core he is loved and special. Trust me, this has more power to build confidence and self-esteem than the fanciest outlet covers money can buy, quirks or no quirks.
Submit your parenting questions to 'Ask Your Mom' columnist Emily here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.
Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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