The Key to Competent Children: Build Self-Esteem, Reduce Resistance, Instill Responsibility

If you have a child with attention, anxiety, mood and/or behavior challenges, then chances are you have a child who struggles with feeling competent.

Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. The feeling of competence is a sense of knowing that “I can do it!”

When children feel competent, they have a sense of themselves as being capable to tackle the tasks and challenges they encounter daily in their lives. Children and young adults who feel incompetent view themselves as incapable, tend to have poor self-esteem, and resist tackling challenges or new experiences. They tend to be easily stressed and overwhelmed, have low frustration tolerance, and are convinced that they do not have what it takes to make things work out in their lives. They are often highly dependent on others, and hesitate to try new things out of fear they will fail. This can lead to difficulties at home and school, and these problems tend to increase as children age into adulthood.

A strong sense of personal competence is necessary for children to persevere in the face of challenges, to step out of their comfort zones, and have positive self-esteem. It is also an important quality to help children grow into adults who are able to independently manage the responsibilities of life. Here are some simple strategies for promoting competence in children of all ages:

Let them help

Providing children opportunities to help with tasks promotes a sense of competence and usefulness. Engaging in tasks such as passing out papers in class, watching a younger sibling for a few minutes, or cutting up veggies for dinner help children feel useful and encourage responsibility. These all fuel a sense of “I can do it,” which is the key to feeling competent. Children with low frustration tolerance may require very brief simple opportunities to help initially; but as they feel more competent, they will be able to engage with more complex tasks for longer periods of time. Make sure your children and students have the opportunity to help with something on a daily basis.

Don’t rush to the rescue

Often when children struggle, adults rush onto the scene to solve problems and prevent children from feeling frustrated or upset. This leads to children lacking resilience and problem solving skills they desperately need in order to feel competent. The solution is to allow children to attempt to solve problems on their own. If it is clear that assistance is needed, then it is fine for an adult to step in – but not without allowing the child to try on their own first.

Celebrate mistakes

One of the main reason children refuse to try new things or tackle challenges is because they are afraid to make a mistake. Learning to tolerate mistakes is key to developing a sense of competence. No one can get good at anything if they aren’t willing to experience some failure! At home and school it is important to spotlight and celebrate mistakes that are made in the process of trying new things and learning new skills. Instead of pointing them out as problems, encourage children to make mistakes in order to get better. Point out your own mistakes and how you are learning from them.

Promote positive self-talk

Many children with attention, anxiety, mood and behavior challenges have a constant loop of negative self-talk going through their heads. Parents and teachers can help overcome this by modeling positive self-talk about themselves and others. Be aware of the kinds of things you say about yourself, especially when facing challenges or when you make a mistake. Allow children to hear you talk about yourself and others in positive ways. Make sure you highlight positive things your child does throughout the day, instead of only focusing on the negative. The more positive messages children hear about themselves and others, the more they will internalize positive self-talk in their own minds.

Focus on effort, not outcome

It is important for children to learn that effort toward something is as important as the end product itself. When the focus is solely on the outcome, children fail to value the effort it takes to get there. This leads them to over-focus on a perfect end product, which makes them less willing to make mistakes, practice, try, and struggle to get better. Teachers and parents can spotlight effort by saying things like, “You worked really hard on this!” Acknowledge the time, effort, and attempts that were made, instead of just focusing on how the project, task, or assignment turned out. This will help children feel more competent and more willing to put forth effort the next time.

If you see that your child or student tends to feel incompetent, start finding small ways each day to spotlight that they are capable. Give them small problems to face and solve without rescuing them, praise their effort, encourage mistakes, and model positive self-talk. You will be amazed at the difference a sense of competence makes for improving self-esteem, reducing resistance, instilling responsibility, and promoting a positive mood.

How do you foster a sense of competence in your children and/or students? Leave your ideas, questions, and successes in the comments below!

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