The two most common self-confidence drops I see during adolescence are at the beginning, in Early Adolescence (9-13) when separating from childhood, and at the end, in Trial Independence (18-23) when leaving home to operate more on one’s own terms. In both cases, the young person must get used to functioning on a significantly expanded playing field of life experience than she or he encountered before.
At these first and last stages of adolescence, as the scope of life enlarges, the young person typically feels diminished in a number of ways. As the challenges of growth become more complex, they feel relatively more uncertain. As they spend more time away from family, they feel relatively less secure. As they must deal with more unknowns, they feel relatively more ignorant. As they dare more risky decisions and make more costly mistakes, they feel relatively less experienced. As they must rely more on themselves and less on parents, they feel relatively more anxious.
This is why a confident child does not automatically become a confident adolescent. It is why a confident high school student can lose that confidence in college, at least at first. It is why young people are often drawn to a peer who exhibits a lot of confidence -- a formal or informal leader to follow in hopes of catching some of this empowering trait by social association. It is why peer groups become so alluring. Belonging to a collective creates welcome social assurance when individual confidence is low.
Of course, like any psychological trait, carried to excess, self-confidence can have its own downside. Whether in a willful adolescent or a dictatorial parent, when confidence in correctness or control becomes wed to sense of entitlement or certainty, arrogance is born. Now others can find it hard to get along with someone who believes she or her always knows best, is right and never wrong, and expects people to defer to that.
In general, however, I haven’t seen lack of confidence do adolescents a lot of favors. For example, it can lead to undue influence of peers, it can slow development by limiting experience, it can lower self-esteem by raising self-doubt, it can lessen motivation by reducing the willingness to try, it can foreclose on progress by resisting goal setting, and it can foster failure by justifying giving up.
So I believe parents need to be firmly on the side of encouraging self-confidence in their adolescent where they can because self-confidence enables growth. For this reason, the nature and management of confidence is a topic worth discussing with their teenager: how it can be built, how it can be lost, and how it can be recovered. What follows is an oversimplified explanation to help get this conversation started.
Consider three possible contributors to self-confidence. Confidence can be built on FAITH: “I believe I can.” It can be created by EFFORT: “I will keep trying.” And it can arise from OUTCOME: “I will use what results to affirm or adjust my approach.” Take these components one at a time.
A lot of belief that the adolescent has in his capacity reflects the belief that parents have expressed in him over the years. It makes a difference if, in response to their teenager’s uneven performance, they have said, “You have what it takes” or “You’ll never succeed”; “Mistakes are to learn from” or “Mistakes are stupid”; “Failure means you tried” or “Failure shows incompetence,” “You know more than before,” or “You’ve ruined your chances.” Continually critical parents can drive the confidence out of adolescents who, having internalized these messages, become trained in being unyieldingly hard on themselves: “I can never get it right,” “I can’t do well enough,” “I’ll never measure up,” “There’s no point in trying.” Belief in one’s capacity is the foundation on which self-confidence depends.
What if your discouraged adolescent complains that there’s nothing she or he can do to build self-confidence? You need to disagree. Start rolling out some possibilities until the young person grabs one of your suggestions and asks you to stop. You can begin like this.
“All it takes to build self-confidence is an act of effort. Many are the ways. Here are a few. Practice a skill, call a friend, earn some money, help someone out, volunteer your services, have something to offer, try something hard, cook a meal, clean your room, order your belongings, join a group, compete in a game, collaborate on a project, correct a mistake, do what feels scary, tell the truth, speak up for yourself, stand up for yourself, explore the unknown, finish what you started, work toward a goal, don’t give up, fix something broken, meet a commitment, learn something new, solve a problem, act independently, do what’s uncomfortable, make something better, make a creation, make someone happy.” Effort is the engine that makes self-confidence run.
Now comes the tricky part. Outcomes affect self-confidence. A happy one can reinforce faith in capacity and recharge the engine of effort, self-confidence coming out stronger. However, unlike faith and effort, outcomes are not at a person’s command because they are multiply determined, much of the time by chance. On the down side, lots of frustrations, disappointments, reverses, rejections, failures, and losses in life depend on many factors beyond the person’s control.
So what happens to a young person’s self-confidence when one of these adversities inevitably occurs? The temptation can be to let unhappiness dictate a discouraging response: “This just goes to show nothing ever works out for me and there’s no point in trying!” Maybe a competition is lost, a relationship is broken, an application is denied, a plan miscarries, or a hope is dashed. What happens to self-confidence now? Recovery depends on how effectively a young person enlists her faith and effort, both subject to her will.
So a young woman struggling for social acceptance in a new high school where resident students like to keep newcomers out, gives it her all to make a team, is cut, and grieves from disappointment, but in her case not for long. Having processed and honored her sadness, she comes into counseling with a smile on her face. After she described her loss, I asked what she was smiling about. That’s when she told me her secret for self-confidence, maybe for the self-confidence of us all. “Well, I just picked myself up from my bed of suffering, figured out the next best thing I wanted, and have decided to go after that.”
She managed to turn adversity into opportunity by reaffirming faith and re-starting effort to pursue another outcome of value. Would she get it? I don’t know, and neither did she. But that wasn’t the point, and we both knew it. With that attitude and determination, we both understood that her self-confidence was going to be okay.
Next week’s entry: Problems of Curiosity between Parents and Adolescent