For transparency I will be clear upfront on why I am writing this. We have two kids who are dyslexic, one of whom is also dysgraphic. I am an Executive Wellbeing Coach and see the impact in adult life of low self-esteem and confidence on my clients. My own challenges ultimately led me to retrain as a coach and I have read a broad range of literature across the fields of neuroscience, behavioural science and psychology to guide my work. Hopefully it has had a positive impact on my parenting too! Much of this I wish I’d known years ago but as Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
How our beliefs about ourselves are formed
Throughout our childhood, experiences with our parents, wider family and friends, school and the society in which we are raised, influence the beliefs we form about ourselves. Every day children are exposed to a huge number of stimuli (e.g., the things we see, hear, people’s body language around us and so much more) and their brains cannot process everything so the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain serves as a filter. Because the brain’s principal job is to keep us safe it has a negative bias (if we worry about things going wrong, we won’t take unnecessary risks), and so homes in on anything negative anyone says about us, or on bad experiences that we have.
Over time this is compounded as the RAS will always filter the information that supports the existing belief e.g., if a child believes they are “bad at maths”they will focus on the fact their friend did much better in a test than they did, rather than on the fact their own score improved on the previous test they did. This confirmation bias is further exacerbated by the fact our prefrontal cortex (the logical, rational part of the brain) is not fully developed until puberty, so we are forming many of our beliefs when we are seeing things relatively simplistically and are less able to challenge whether our beliefs are in fact true.
We go into adulthood with a mixture of positive and negative beliefs about ourselves, but it is the limiting beliefs that cause many of us issues as adults and can manifest themselves in a variety of ways including anxiety, procrastination, self-doubt and perfectionism.
For neurodiverse children, the impact on their confidence and self-esteem can be huge as they recognise from a young age that they find things challenging, that others around them find easy. Even the language used to describe learning differences focuses on the deficit, not the benefits (I looked up the meaning of ‘Dys’ in the Oxford Dictionary – bad:difficult). As parents, I believe it is our job to help them see the many strengths that their neurodiversity brings. I believe that we have neurodiversity for a reason. That the world needs people who see things differently, and now more than ever. Progressive companies, such as Dyson, are recognising this too and proactively recruiting neurodiverse people.
How to build confidence in our kids
For much of my adult life I thought confidence was something you had or didn’t. What I have learned is that confidence is like a muscle. It can grow, or it can shrink. We saw that during covid.
Scientists know from brain scanning that new neural pathways form in the brain when we learn new things or continue to improve the knowledge or skills we have. It takes repetition to build these new pathways. From our experience as a family, what helped to build our kids confidence was to support them to do something that interests them and to encourage them to keep getting better at it. They want to do it because they love it, and their confidence grows as they see the progress they have made. For both our kids it was a sport, but it could be anything – art, music, drama, dance – whatever they really enjoy doing.
Our brain will always naturally focus on the gap between where we want to be versus where we are right now but that creates feelings of failure, frustration, disappointment and undermines our self-esteem. In their book “The Gap and the Gain: The High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence & Success” by Dan Sullivan & Dr Benjamin Hardy they encourage that instead we consciously focus on where we started and how far we have come. This fosters motivation, confidence, success and high self-esteem. A simple tool I encourage clients to use to foster this mindset, is each week to write down their 3 wins for the week. Personally, I use pieces of coloured card for this and pop them into a vase each week. At the end of the year, it allows me to reflect on how far I’ve come.
A fear of failing can stop us trying. Yet if we don’t try, by default we fail anyway. I love the quote from Tony Robbins where he reframes failure. “There’s no such thing as failure, only results. Whatever happens it’s useful information.” As parents I believe we need to encourage our kids to try their best and not to be critical of the results. This can be challenging especially where we have had critical parents ourselves. When I got my Higher results, I was really pleased with them and felt they reflected the effort I had put in. And most importantly to me at the time, they would get me onto the course I wanted to study at university. I will never forget my dad asking me “What would it have taken to have got straight A’s?”. Naturally we seek external validation – as humans we want to be accepted– but it is what our children think about themselves that is most important. Helping them to focus on their progress is key.
In life there are always things that are out of our control. Helping our children recognise the things they can control and have a positive impact on is beneficial. As my son said to me “we need to control the controllable.” It’s something his swimming coach said to him. Affirmations can also be useful. Having a mantra that they say to themselves when self-doubt strikes takes them from the gap to the gain mindset e.g.“I am growing and learning new things every day.” As a parent we can do this too. It's all too easy to beat ourselves up about our failings as parents but maybe something like "I am doing my best and I am loving and supporting them every day" would help. Pick a mantra that works for you.