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Encouraging or discouraging


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Encouragement means working to build a person’s confidence; developing their feeling of being capable and valued. Re-read that sentence now, using your child's name for "person" and "his" or "her" for "their." To encourage builds on the assets and strengths of your child. You show your belief in your child’s own self and abilities, and encourage the child to try and to learn. It builds self-confidence and the child’s making efforts. You show your appreciation for the child’s own self, and for what the child does that is positive and constructive — specific actions or behaviors that you name.

Develop their believing in themselves. Encourage their individually constructing or creating with toys and with art. Look for what they do best, then help them develop those qualities of themselves. As they develop skills, support them and praise them, and do that in specific ways. Rather than, “That’s nice,” specify, “I like the way that you….”

Appreciation "lubricates" our interactions with our children, their friends, and others. As with praise, compliments need to be specific. Add a tussle of hair, a hug, or other indication of your appreciation. Have variety in your compliments, tailored to each child and to circumstances; a major job deserves more than a minor quickie. Parents who do not spontaneously compliment might work on that tendency.

Limit rescues
One of many joys of parenting is to rescue our child from danger. Especially when children are young we enjoy saving them from threats, and help them overcome obstacles. However, when we rescue our child, we cheat that child out of having to create their own rescue. The child who finds their own rescue learns responsibility for his or her self. Perhaps we can limit rescues to occasional and very serious dangers. And we can use their own rescue or our's for conversation about that child's confidence in their own resilience and their own self-reliance.

How easily is your child discouraged? That may be more likely for younger children, because often they are not as tall or skilled as older brothers or sisters. Avoid comparisons between brothers and sisters when they have different abilities, skills, and maturity. Create areas of play where each child is not competing with more skilled brothers or sisters, and can develop individual initiative and creativity. Different children have different levels of confidence in their abilities. They differ in their desire to try and to risk. As they develop skills, lead them into team work with selected family members.

Work with younger children to learn to keep trying. We may want to punish a child for climbing furniture or other risky behavior; instead encourage repeated trying. Many are discouraged after an initial failure, instead of trying again.

But what do you do when the child is discouraged or has not done well? First, consider your own reactions to events, because you model for your child how to respond.

Why do two people who experience the same event respond differently? Why are some more resilient? If you want your child to bounce back after a harsh experience, help your child (and yourself, perhaps) to avoid “catastrophizing.” That is a tendency within people to assume the worst cause:

  • they feel discouraged because they feel the cause of harsh events is personal defects;
  • they may also feel that the cause of problems is permanent defects in themselves: "I always…"

To avoid “catastrophizing” practice these steps:

First, become sensitive to "self-talk." How aware are you of the thoughts and reactions that frequently cross your mind? Sometimes you are almost unaware of them. Try catching these thoughts to think about them. Once you are sensitive to self-talk, then help each child to recognize these thoughts, so that they can reflect about them.

Second, test your private self-talk. Are you putting yourself down? Do you assume the worst of the many thoughts that flit across your mind? Do you think of permanent defects ("I always…").

Third, explore alternative explanations. Any event has many possible causes. You want them to be responsible for their own doings, but not for events that are out of their control. You want your child to develop a habit to search for specific causes. When they reflect on what they did that contributed to the harsh event, teach them to be sensitive so they do not think of these causes as defects of their character or as permanent. Very few causes of harsh experiences are permanent. When the child says, “I always” or other broad, general statements, talk carefully with your child to emphasize specifics. Help the child to learn and grow in seeing what the child can do and change to avoid future catastrophes.

The purpose of recognizing “self talk” and evaluating it is to move the child away from “catastrophizing.” When the child experiences a catastrophe while playing or a grade from school, help the child to think about impersonal causes of the events. A bad grade or a losing play may be due to how the child studied or played. The more your child can habitually reflect on their self talk and test it, the better they can respond to catastrophes without “catastrophizing.”

Here are two similar experiments; the first is a school child, while the second is an older teen and directly involves you. You may try either or both. Take time to work on your feelings and actions after listening to the youngster.


Here is a common experience with school work. Think about alternative ways to respond to this child. Think of ways you can find out what your child’s self talk is, as, “What were you thinking after you saw this grade?” Seek for suggestions that this child may be “catastrophizing.”


With teens we often get caught up in what they do, and in this case work to separate your own feelings and involvement from your teen's. What are different ways you can talk with this teen, and which is healthiest, which is constructive, and why? And how can you avoid the teen “catastrophizing?”

One-with-one time
Perhaps the most important parenting you can do is to spend time with each child, doing what that child wants to do. The activity is less important than your talking together, listening, sharing in what your child wants to do at that time. You learn as you listen and are with that child. This can be a time of discovery as you focus attention on one child. Burton L. White, a Harvard educational psychologist, says, "The key seems to be the time that attentive, responsive parents spend with their children – parents who are on hand and enthusiastic, whether their youngsters want help, comfort, or simply a chance to share discoveries."

Use your imagination to think of ways to interact with the uniqueness of each child.

Copyright © 2002 John F. Yeaman


To explore further the many ways we as parents (and teachers and others) influence a child to become resilient, to de-catastrophize, and to learn optimism, see Martin Seligman's The Optimistic Child. See pages 15–17 and chapters 10–13 especially.