Raising Confident, Happy Children

As parents, how can we equip our children to succeed?  How can we help to give them all that they need to grow up confident, resilient and, most importantly, happy?

Anthony Gunn is a psychologist and father of two. He specialises in treating anxiety, and helping to empower people to step out of their comfort zones. 

Anthony’s new book, Raising Confident, Happy Children: 40 ways to help your child succeed is a practical, pocket-sized guide for parents and carers.

Anthony believes that if parents can understand their own behaviour first, then they will be better placed to support but not smother their children and allay many childhood fears, no matter how trivial.

KidsLife speaks here with Anthony.

What age groups does your book address?

Primary school age, 5-12 years. Issues affecting children under this age and teenagers often need to be handled slightly differently. This is because children under this age often won’t have the brain development to fully understand many of the book’s cognitive techniques, and teenagers often won’t want to be seen with their parents in public in order to carry out the set tasks.

Your book contains 40 chapters that you’ve managed to condense into a pocket-sized guide. Was this the intentional format for today’s busy parents and caregivers?

Yes, time is a limited resource for most parents and caregivers today.

As a parent myself, I often found it frustrating wading through parenting books in search of an answer to a specific problem.

In a nutshell, why is self-confidence so important for a child?

Without self-confidence a child will be far less willing to step out of comfort zones and try new things.

When a child does not have these learning experiences of being able to manage the discomfort associated with stepping out of comfort zones, they are unknowingly programming their brains with unhelpful patterns of avoidant behaviour for adulthood, such as staying in unhealthy relationships or unsatisfying jobs.

Is there a difference between self-efficacy and self-esteem?

Yes, self efficacy relates to a person’s perception about their ability to reach a goal, whereas self-esteem relates to a person’s sense of self-worth.

For example the shy, lonely child who stays in the library at recess and lunchtime is said to have low self-esteem. However, this child may be very good at operating the family computer, and therefore have high self-efficacy with managing computer troubles.

Now, if this child had the same high self-efficacy with stepping out of other comfort zones such as making new friends as they did with using computers, then their chances of being happy and confident would increase dramatically.

Can a child’s development be disadvantaged if psychological limitations are pushed too hard, too soon?

Most definitely. For example, many anxieties such as phobias develop in childhood. Even though phobias in children are simple to treat, and even easier to prevent, they can often be caused by an adult pushing a child too fast, such as being taught to swim by being thrown in the deep end of a pool. (Even though less common today, I’ve treated adults for water phobia after such extreme measures were used on them as children).

The key is to look after your child’s confidence by encouraging them to face challenges in small manageable steps and at their pace.

Chapter titles such as Make a game out of fearLet them see the dead goldfish and Let your child strugglewould suggest that as parents, some of us can instinctively over-protect. How can this impact on a child’s confidence?

It’s a natural urge for parents to want to step in and support a child they think is struggling. However, there’s a fine line between supporting and rescuing.

Rescuing teaches the child that they are incompetent and can’t be trusted, as well as robbing them of vital brain development that solving a problem offers. For example, if your child forgets to bring their news item to school, allow them to face the consequences of this instead of racing home and bringing it back to school for them.

Children are far more resilient than parents think, especially when the child has a loving and caring home. The key is to allow your child to struggle with situations they can control, which will vary from child to child.

When it comes to fears, how can parents help their children to face them?

Be a role model and lead by example. Show the child how to face a fear yourself.

Children are natural copycats and learn more from their parent’s actions than their words.

Make a deal with your child that you both face a fear together. For example, my fear was showing off my white legs at the local pool, and my daughter’s was sleeping with the sheet on, as she was scared there’d be spiders under it. We both encouraged each other to face our fears, which not only gave my daughter support, but also didn’t make her feel alone or weak for feeling fear in the first place.

Remember, when choosing any situation, if the situation offers too little fear or is too safe, it’s unlikely the child will learn anything from it. Likewise, when a situation poses too much fear, it’s unlikely the child will cope.

Therefore encourage your child to face a fearful situation that they can manage. Gauge this by having them face the fear in small gradual steps and at their pace.

You offer parenting advice that is practical, open and honest. How well do you think parents need to know themselves, to get the most from your book?

Doing a bad job as a parent would be up there as most parents’ greatest fear.

Sticking one’s head in the sand instead of looking in the mirror at one’s own imperfections, as a parent may be less painful initially. But it risks setting the child up for failure.

Children constantly study their parent’s reaction to situations to know firstly, if the situation is safe, and secondly, how they themselves should manage the situation like their parent does.

If a parent screams at the sight of a spider, procrastinates about doing jobs around the house, is fearful of leaving a job they’re unhappy in, finds it difficult saying no, or simply frowns at the child’s suggestion of going in a public speaking competition, then the child is soaking up all these parental teachings like a sponge.

Teaching your child to be confident first comes through leading by example. Muster up the courage to look at yourself in the mirror to see what your parenting is like and where it can be improved, then watch your parenting soar.

If you could list five points to encourage kids to succeed, what would they be?

  1. Face fear in baby steps (go at the child’s pace).
  2. Hug your child daily (a child who is loved unconditionally will be more willing to step out of comfort zones).
  3. Make home a mistake-safe zone.
  4. Lead by example (children naturally copy their parents).
  5. Dare to look in the mirror to see what your parenting is like and where it can be improved.

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