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Shanghai experts share tips for boosting children’s self-esteem and building confidence

When should you help them break out of their shell and when should you just let them be?

Photograph: Naassom Azevedo via Unsplash
It's a question many parents ask themselves: how can I help my child grow up to become confident? We understand that confidence and having strong self-esteem are linked to everything from happiness to just being willing to put yourself out there to try new things, but what exactly goes into building self-confidence? When do you give your children a little encouragement to break out of their shell and when should you just let them be? Four Shanghai experts specialising in psychology and early childhood education break it down for you.

On the common causes of low self-esteem or low confidence in children

It’s commonly believed in psychology that family of origin plays a big role in this. ‘Kids need to feel their opinions are valued and their feelings are validated by their parents,’ says life and parenting coach Cecilia Ding. Dr Vilia Lyell, a psychologist from Parkway Health, also adds ‘Kids need to trust their capabilities and to know they can handle situations.’ In addition, traumatic events or bullying by peers can contribute to low self-esteem and confidence in children.

On low confidence in third culture kids

There is some thinking that kids relocating to different countries could trigger low confidence – however, it’s not a given. Community Center Shanghai Counseling Director Carrie Jones does believe that there is some correlation as, ‘Kids of expatriate parents are not surrounded by a typical cross-section of society,’ which could add extra pressure. For example, she explains it’s not a typical environment in which, ‘Everybody seems to speak six different languages with fantastic accents.’ However, she also adds that third culture kids might be more likely to have high self-confidence: ‘The flipside is they have the opportunity to see the world and be independent, which in the long run, helps with their confidence.’ Psychologist and Montessori educator Mirian Bonomi also adds that different cultures might act as a stimulus for kids to catch up and learn, which ultimately can boost their confidence.

Photograph: Bady Abbas via Unsplash

On dos and don’ts for helping kids develop self-esteem

Ding uses the Four Steps formula to help raiseself-esteem and emotional intelligence in kids. For instance, she explains, when kids get into a fight it is crucial to make sure both kids are physically safe (step one) no matter how wrong their behaviour has been, then the next step is to validate their emotions (step two) by telling them it is ok to feel angry and everybody feels that way. After that, parents can calmly ask what has just happened and the reason it happened (step three) before giving their advice and instructions (step four). ‘A common trap for parents is to lump behavioural disapproval with emotional suppression,’ explains Ding. Coming from a Montessori background, Bonomi advises parents to treat their kids as ‘capable beings’ who can think for themselves and give kids the opportunity to solve problems on their own. She advises parents not to rush to ‘rescue’ kids. Give them time, observe and then offer the necessary help your kids need to finish the task on their own.

On giving praise and compliments

We all think praise is good for kids, and it is – but it’s important to think about how we praise our children. Bonomi distinguishes the difference between internal gratification and external gratification. ‘When kids figure out something on their own, they naturally feel internal gratification,’ she adds, ‘Parents should encourage more internal gratification rather than saying “good job” mindlessly.’ For example, if your child finishes a painting, ask them how they felt when they were drawing this picture, ask them ‘Do you like your drawing?’ and offer words like ‘What an effort you’ve put into this. I am proud of you. Are you proud of yourself?’ Jones also advises that parents praise how thoughtful, funny, athletic and artistic their kids are rather than complimenting only their academic achievements.

On seeking professional help

Parents should seek professional help anytime their children express they are struggling, says Jones. But it’s not just kids – if you as parent feel you’re holding your child back because you’re having difficulty with confidence or self-esteem, talking to a professional can help. To find a service that works best for you and your family, Jones suggests that parents look at the Shanghai International Mental Health Association (SIMHA) website, which will save going back and forth from clinics to hospitals to community centres. Ding recommends Shanghai Community Center where it currently has 25 qualified counsellors who offer face-to-face consultations as well as teletherapy online in different languages.

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