Teach Your Kids How to Build Confidence

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 01, 2017

Teaching your kids how to build confidence – and then performance – isn’t really all that hard. Learn here about some tricks that will help.

When your children are about to get up in front of an audience or complete a task under time pressure, you can teach them how to prepare with tips based on science and the experience of star performers. Tests and performances – the violin recital or the SAT – don’t have to be overwhelming. Here’s how to teach your children how to build confidence.


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Encourage superstitions that build confidence

If your child wants to eat a certain meal before the game, bring a particular pen to exams, or must wear her lucky underwear, applaud her for understanding human nature and herself.

Don’t let anyone (siblings are good at this) tell her that she’s being “dumb” or “silly.”

Explain that all human beings, including parents, respond powerfully to associations and cues. One study found that volunteers handed a “Smarties” candy wafer roll before tackling math problems outdid volunteers handed a “DumDum” lollipop. Those people weren’t smart or dumb — they were human.

In other research, students told that they had a “lucky” golf ball landed more putts, on average, than students who were told that they were getting the same ball as everyone else. The golf ball experiment was one of a series in which researchers concluded that people learn how to gain confidence and tend to try harder if they feel bolstered by a lucky object or expression like “break a leg.”

It’s even better if that lucky golf ball once belonged to Tiger Woods. In the movie “Like Mike,” a shortish teen orphan becomes an NBA superstar when he plays in sneakers he thinks once belonged to Michael Jordan. It turns out to be true that just touching an object used by a top performer may give you the confidence to do better.

If you’re worried about magical thinking in your household, you might say, “That’s a superstition, but superstitions can help — even if you know it’s a superstition!”  

Ted Kaptchuk, a professor of medicine at Harvard, demonstrated the power of suggestion with placebos, a similar way to jog your mind to serve your goals. He gave patients with irritable bowel syndrome bottles labeled “placebo pills,” and also told them that placebos can help. The patients reported twice as much improvement as patients who got no treatment.

The fear is that your child will go into an utter panic if she loses her lucky underwear or pen. That’s when you remind her that the object doesn’t play the violin, she does.


Be sure your child has had a trial run, if possible, performing in a similar situation. If she’s giving a speech, you might get out the timer and have her give the speech to you and then again to you and the family. This is great way to learn how to build confidence in one’s abilities.

Encourage a pre-performance routine

Make sure she gets enough food and sleep the week and day before. The preparations shouldn’t go to the eleventh hour, if at all possible. Schedule in a “self-care” day or evening. Routine can be calming and prime the body with associations with previous performances.

Encourage a pre-performance ritual

Especially if your child will have to wait for her turn to shine, for example, at a recital with other people doing solos, help her prepare for that time. Daniel McGinn, author of “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed,” reports that sports psychologists advise athletes to create soundtracks that encourage them to visualize past successes.

She might also create her own play track to listen to, with rousing songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar” (“’Cause I am the champion, and you're gonna hear me roar!”).

What to do in the car on the way

Teens often wear their headphones in the car. Invite your child to take over the music in the car. That way, you may be able to have a conversation, too. You could keep a video of a past success on your phone and invite her to look at it. You could also just remind her of past successes, with questions like, “When was it that you played the Rachmaninoff?”

Redefine nerves as excitement

It’s easy to become afraid of the sensations of anxiety. Your child may think a racing heart beat is a guarantee of failure.

But it’s a mistake to say, “Calm down, you’re going to be fine.” If your child still feels antsy when she’s told to calm down, in her head she’s failed. Instead, say something like, “It’s normal to feel revved up, you’re excited.”

It’s easier to shift a bit downwards from anxiety to excitement than to outright calm, McGinn explains. This is also a powerful lesson that you can define physical sensations in different ways.

Should your child want calming music, help her think about the music that soothes her and load it into her phone. Photos of nature can also be soothing and rejuvenating simultaneously. You might look at the nature tags on Instagram. If you’re passing greenery, you might invite her to notice it.

McGinn’s book provides lots of other tips on how both children and adults can learn how to build confidence and prepare themselves for the tests of life. Perhaps simply choosing to adopt any strategy boosts a sense of competence — knowing you’re trying and having a plan is some big percentage of every battle.  


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September 01, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN