I wanted Finn to be able to talk to me about all his fears and anxiety around the move, and I knew that self-efficacy could help with that, too. It promotes open parent-child communication while helping kids resist peer pressure both directly and indirectly. Research shows that when a child believes he has the ability to resist peer pressure, he will be a lot more likely to do so, and further, he will be more likely to talk to his parents about those episodes of peer pressure when they arise. On the other hand, kids who don’t feel as if they can resist peer pressure don’t tend to talk to their parents about the things they do outside the home.
Lack of self-efficacy is a risk factor for substance abuse and other negative health outcomes, but when converted into its opposite and equal force, a strong sense of self-efficacy, it can be one of the most powerful protective factors we can give our children. Here are some practical ways parents can boost kids’ perceptions of their own self-efficacy and help kids with low self-efficacy get back on the right path:
Start with yourself.
Model, model, model self-efficacy for your kids. Start questioning your own assertions of “I can’t” with “I can’t yet,” then turn that perspective outward, toward your children. That helps kids believe competence is not congenital, it is learned, and often hard-won.
Give kids skills.
Praise alone won’t give your child a sense of self-efficacy or competence; these things come from the actual experience of trying, doing, failing, trying again, and succeeding. Give kids age-appropriate tasks that help them stay engaged and challenged while granting opportunities to taste success. Teach them how to make dinner from start to finish and see what they create on their own. Encourage your teen to take the family car to the garage and have that rattle behind the dash fixed.
Optimism is about more than seeing a glass as half full; it’s a mind-set that has a very real impact on physical and mental health. Optimistic children are better able to resist learned helplessness and depression, whereas pessimists are much more likely to give in to feelings of helplessness and are consequently at much higher risk of suffering from a wide range of negative mental and physical health outcomes. According to the psychologist Martin Seligman, author of “The Optimistic Child,” pessimistic kids see obstacles as permanent, pervasive, and their fault. Optimistic children, on the other hand, view setbacks as temporary, specific and attributable to behaviors that can be changed. As Dr. Seligman explains: “Children learn their pessimism, in part, from their parents and teachers, so it is very important that you model optimism for your children as a first step.”
Make failures specific, but generalize success.
Guide children toward optimism by framing their success as generally as possible. If your daughter has a good day in math class, help her globalize that success. Instead of “I did well in math class because I paid attention,” move toward “School is going well because I am doing all my assignments on time.” Help her expand her success beyond the boundaries of one class or one day.
Be specific in your praise.
General praise, such as “Good job!” is useless when it comes to bolstering self-efficacy in kids because it has no real meaning. Aim for behavior-specific praise that reinforces practices you want to encourage, such as, “I’m so proud of you for sticking with that project even when you got frustrated.” Behavior-specific praise describes the desired behavior, is specific to the child, and offers a positive, clear, statement.
Don’t go overboard with your praise.
Experts on the use of behavior-specific praise in the classroom recommend a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of praise to correction, a ratio I have tried to maintain with my own students and children. I teach and parent older teens, but this guideline is effective for kids of any age. Research shows it not only boosts good behavior, but also creates a sense of community and positivity that helps kids hear our constructive criticism when it inevitably comes.