by Renee Mill, Clinical Psychologist
Originally published in Sydney Child, November-December 2007
“I think I can, I know I can!”
Every loving parent wants their child to be happy. When I consulted with Gerald and Tina they proved to be no exception. “We just want Ben to have friends, to do well at school and, one day, to be a fulfilled and productive adult,” they told me. “However, right now his behaviour is a concern of ours.”
Taking a history, it soon became clear to me why these parents had sought out my help. Ben, it appears, is a timid six year old boy who does not like to try new things. He is reluctant to play ball games at school. He stays at his mother’s side at a party until he finds a friend that he knows. He frequently puts himself down, calling himself “stupid”. When faced with a new reader, he will not even try the new words and Tina has to sit with him and read out loud first.
Gerald told me that he is confused about Ben’s timidity as he is always telling Ben that he is a special boy, capable of doing whatever he wants. Gerald feels that his praise does not sink in and he feels at a loss on how to build Ben’s confidence. Tina confessed that she frequently feels frustrated at Ben’s behaviour although she believes that she hides her true feelings from him. What she tends to do is to tell him over and over that he is a very lucky boy who has parents and grandparents who love him. She tells him that there is nothing to be afraid of because they will always be there to protect him.
Gerald’s strategies of praise and verbal encouragement are commonly used by parents today. Tina’s reassurances of love and protection are also utilised frequently by concerned parents. However, besides praise, love and reassurance, there is another vital ingredient for building self esteem and confidence in children. It is called “self efficacy” and it is a building block for self esteem and future success in life. I define self efficacy as the feeling that you get when you do something successfully, the feeling of mastery that you get when you complete a task. It is the excitement of knowing, ‘I can do this”, which comes from doing something which seemed too difficult before. It is a feeling that arises from action and it cannot be achieved any other way.
Gerald and Tina said that they felt a bit confused as the term self efficacy was new to them. I took my time to make clear to them that when Ben is told in words that he is capable, it is not enough to make him believe it. Like all children, Ben needs to actually do something and experience success at a task in order to feel adequate. To make my point clear I asked Tina, “How would you feel if I told you that you I believe in you, and know that you are capable of being a ballerina?” Tina burst out laughing. “I would think that you are crazy as I have no idea of how to do ballet.” “That is exactly how Ben feels when you tell him that he can read a new book and he has never done it before,” I explained. “He does not see himself as able to read and he thinks that you are out of touch with his abilities.”
Gerald seemed to be getting the concept and asked a very relevant question. He wanted to know how to go about giving Ben a sense of self efficacy as there always has to be a first time for every activity. I elaborated that the most important facet of self efficacy is having mastery experiences. Every time that Ben has the opportunity to master a task, he will start to believe that he is capable of doing that task. The more things that he masters, the more he will believe that he can be successful in new situations too.
I realised that a concrete illustration needed to be given in order to make the concept of self efficacy relevant and applicable to Ben. “As an example”, I said, “let us imagine that Ben does not want to play a ball game because he worries that he will fail. In order to foster a feeling of mastery, Gerald could play ball with Ben in the back yard of their home initially so that Ben will see that he can catch a ball. Gerald can make comments like, ‘I can see that you have an eye for the ball’ or ‘Look how you caught that ball. That is good eye hand co-ordination’. This is helpful praise and will assist Ben to notice specific skills that he is utilising. Within a short time, Ben will start to believe that he has an eye for the ball because he is catching the ball in reality. As a consequence of his new found belief in himself , he will be willing to start learning another ball game at school such as cricket which in turn will lead to more success experiences at playing with a ball. As time moves on, Ben will experience a more general sense of competence reflected in beliefs like, ‘ I can play sport’, ‘I can play in a team’, ‘ I can run’, ‘ I am a good loser’, etc.”
There is no substitute for opportunities to feel masterful. In practice, Gerald and Tina need to provide opportunities for Ben to complete tasks that he can realistically achieve and then slowly upgrade the difficulty level. Household chores and everyday activities like shopping are excellent teaching grounds. Dressing and feeding himself, planning an event, counting money, writing a shopping list, completing a project himself, talking to a shopkeeper and entertaining a friend at home are all tasks that will help Ben to know that he is a capable human being.
At this point, Tina said quietly, “I feel terrible. I realise that I have been doing everything for Ben and it has been to his detriment. Even when I let him do things, I am so afraid that he will not succeed and feel stupid that I am sure he can feel my fear.” Gerald added his confession saying, “I cannot bear to watch him struggle. I feel so sorry for him that I step in and take over. Is this wrong?”
Once again Gerald’s question gave me an opening to share my views. I encouraged Tina and Gerald not to be afraid if Ben struggles with an activity. He will not master everything quickly and easily and when he struggles to achieve something, he will learn many lessons along the way that will add to his sense of self efficacy. For instance, he will learn that he can struggle and succeed in the end; he will learn that he is capable of hard work; he will learn that learning something new takes time to master and so on. Every skill he learns will boost his self esteem in a meaningful and permanent way.
Another way of bolstering a sense of self efficacy is to utilise reassurance in a helpful way. I gave an example, “Let us say that Ben is afraid to learn soccer. Gerald can remind him how he was afraid to play ball initially but after a few attempts at home Ben realised he could do it. Tina can add that Ben had no idea that he would be able to play cricket but he gave it a go and now he is part of the team.” This kind of reassurance is meaningful as it is based on reality. It is a fact that Ben tried and succeeded with one sport and therefore it follows that the same could happen again with a different sport.
Sometimes watching others succeed can assist with developing self efficacy. If Ben has a friend whom he sees as an equal succeeding at an activity it may give him the confidence to try that activity too. Gerald and Tina could try this for instance at a party. When they see Ben’s friend Josh playing with somebody Tina could say “Ben, can you see that Josh has found a friend to play with? Perhaps you could try and find a friend too.”
At the end of the session, Gerald and Tina told me that they had learned a lot about a new concept and a new way of building self esteem. They returned six weeks later bursting with good news. Tina told me that Ben’s behaviour had improved dramatically after she had allowed him to tackle some tasks himself. Not only was he being more responsible, but he was actively making suggestions on how things should be done. Just last week he had told his nana that it was his idea to make potatoes for dinner and he peeled them all himself. Gerald felt that these feelings of success had spilled over to school where he was persevering more and trying new tasks.
Gerald chuckled and said that when he had left my rooms after the previous session, he was filled with doubt as to his ability to succeed at the task of helping Ben to be more confident. However, very quickly after implementing the strategies that I had suggested, Ben began to show improvement. Gerald then began to believe, “I can do this” and realised that his self efficacy as a father had improved. Gerald confirmed that only when he implemented the new strategies in actuality, and experienced success, did he feel more confident as a father. It was the real life experience of developing feelings of self efficacy that enabled Ben’s parents to understand what I was getting at. This has spurred them on to continue to provide Ben with mastery experiences in all areas of his life.
Dare I humbly add that my feelings of self efficacy as a psychologist improved as well?