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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you are an essential part of your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while building a sense of confidence in your 3-year-old child so that they can work toward their goals and succeed in school and life.
Confidence simply means a belief in self. But, from where does that confidence come? It begins with the trusting relationship you work to develop with your child. The bond you have with your child forms a solid foundation from which your child can feel safe to explore the world.
Your child is now interested in and capable of playing cooperatively with their peers. They realize that new, exciting fantasies await if they can engage others in their play. But, this will require that they take social cues, manage their impulses, and negotiate their way through conflicts.
Three-to-four-year-olds will continue to build their social and emotional skills primarily through loving interactions with you and your responses to their needs. As children develop their social and emotional skills, they will also build their sense of confidence. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can foster confidence through your relationship with your child and by focusing your attention on helping your child grow social and emotional skills. Confidence is…
- Self-awareness: your child’s deepening sense of who they are, understanding their identity and their strengths and limitations.
- Self-management: your child learning to manage their emotions constructively, such as when you help them calm down when they’re upset.
- Social awareness: your child’s ability to see from another’s perspective and to empathize with others.
- Relationship skills: your child’s new capacity to initiate, grow, and sustain healthy relationships with others.
- Responsible decision making: laying the groundwork for your child’s ability to reflect – before choosing words or actions – on the consequences in order to not cause harm.
Emerging confidence in children begins with confident parents — parents who are committed to learning from and with their child. Confident parents are not perfect. They simply offer themselves the grace and permission to reflect on and learn from their mistakes. Mistakes do not define who they are.
The key to many parenting challenges, like building confidence, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you.
Whether it’s your 3-year-old crying uncontrollably when you say, “no” to candy or your own feelings of inadequacy when trying to respond to your child’s frustration, establishing regular ways to build a trusting connection along with teaching your child vital skills will build confidence.
Today, in the short term, building confidence can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, building confidence in your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child build confidence. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Getting Your Child Thinking by Gaining Their Input
You can get your child thinking about building confidence by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking and understanding of their own and others’ feelings. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts and feelings about confronting challenges so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for solving their own problems);
- has more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership;
- works in collaboration with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life; and
- grows their self-control, social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think I feel?”
For example, if your child is making a disagreeable facial expression. Say, “Freeze” like a game. Pull out the mirror, ask them to repeat the face, and ask about what that facial expression represents. For example, “Your eyebrows are squished down, and there’s a line in your forehead. Are you feeling mad?”
When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking, “What do you think this character is feeling? What do you think that character is thinking?”
If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling — or buried in their own feelings — consider asking questions like:
- “What do you notice about how they are feeling?”
- “How do you know from their facial expression?”
- “What does their voice sound like?”
- “How are they moving?”
Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This can help reduce the length and strength of tantrums, or other expressions of upset feelings, as your child gains emotional competence.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all of this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build their confidence. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is going through.1 Here are some examples:
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
- 3-4-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- During reading time, select a book with faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings. Point out how you can tell each face is feeling each feeling, and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- After reading a story together, act out the story and use feeling words and expressions to match how the characters were feeling throughout the story. This expands their feelings vocabulary and teaches them how to recognize a wide range of perspectives and feelings that they might not encounter in day-to-day interactions with others.
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving even and particularly when it’s not a comfortable feeling. “I am frustrated right now because I cannot get the seat belt to work. Can you tell? My face is red and getting hot.”
- Talk aloud about the ways you respond to your own big feelings: “I’m going to take a few deep breaths before trying again and see if that helps.”
- Develop empathetic thinking. In addition to developing these essential skills that lead your children to build confidence, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to contribute to your child’s thinking. For example, when your child points a blaming finger saying, “He did it!” you may respond with:
- “What do you think he’s feeling?”
- “What choice would you make if you were feeling sad or hurt?”
- “What do you think could make him feel better?”
- Play act anger. In a calm moment, create a drama in which you feel angry. Describe how you are feeling and why. “This doll took my toy. I feel so mad. My face feels hot. I feel like a want to growl.” Then, shift to what could make you feel better. “How could I help myself feel better?” you might ask your child. Create ideas and try them out together. “I could hug a pillow tight. I could draw with crayons or pound on playdoh.” Make sure that the ideas you try are ones you want to teach your child to use when they are truly angry.
- Practice deep breathing. When you are putting your child to bed, give a teddy bear a ride on your tummy as you breathe in and out deeply. Have your child try it.
Use play acting when your child is angry. Gently remind: “Do you remember how we felt better when we play acted that we were angry?” If your child can’t recall, show them how you hug a pillow tightly to help yourself feel better. Don’t forget to take deep breaths together.
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Three-to-four-year-olds are striving for independence, and it may create a power struggle if you are too directive about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines can be opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.
- Allow your child the chance to take steps to meet their big challenges, whether they are working on tasting new foods for the first time, exploring the objects in their environment, or attempting to communicate with new words or phrases.
- Be sure to consider how you can create the conditions to support their success like creating a quiet, organized environment with age-appropriate books, toys, or creative supplies.
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to do those new tasks well and independently. You can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work hard toward a goal. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “Show me that you can tell me what you are feeling.”
- Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain skills over time.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you squeezed your pillow like we practiced.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you enjoyed meeting my friend Susie. Anna is kind too. You might enjoy meeting her today.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like:
- “You seem worried about going into this new store. I’ll hold your hand so you feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face into them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would your bear help you feel better?”
- Take steps to support your child if they experience separation anxiety. Be certain you are placing your child in the care of someone you trust so that you feel safe leaving your child in that person’s care. Give your child a piece of you (blanket, scarf) to have while you’re gone. Express your love and explain to them when you’ll return in terms of activities: “You’ll finish lunch, and then I’ll be back!” Leave without lingering but don’t sneak out.
Separation anxiety, though developmentally normal, can be stressful for both parent and child. Take deep breaths and time to calm down after leaving your child in caring hands.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You made a friend at the playground today — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you are good in the store, you get to pick out a toy at the checkout” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were a big helper in the store today. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when all is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. If your child cried when you had to leave the playground yesterday but seems perfectly content today, notice their newfound comfort. “I notice you are OK as we leave the playground today. That’s very helpful!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments like a fear or insecurity to go away in order to recognize effort. For example, you don’t have to wait until your three-year-old is able to sleep through the night to recognize they are doing better at their sleep routine. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “You stayed in your bed. I like seeing that!”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.