“I can’t do it,” my seven-year-old highly sensitive daughter whispers to me backstage. She has been rehearsing for a large musical production for over two months now and opening night is about to start. I was worried about this when she got the part, but rehearsal had been going well so far.
Now there were tears.
“I can’t go on stage crying!” She’s starting to panic.
The stage manager ushers me away (no extras backstage now) and all I can do is wait nervously in the crowded audience. It’s a lot of people. I have no idea if she’ll make it past the curtain.
But she does. With a smile. In full character. She’s amazing and for the next six nights of performances, her confidence just grows and grows.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP) myself, I don’t think I’d have the confidence to get up and perform in front of hundreds of people, but both of my highly sensitive children do exactly that. Often!
HSPs often struggle with confidence. We can be labeled as shy, slow to warm up, or nervous.
But, as my kids have taught me, HSPs can overcome these labels and shine with confidence. Here’s why it’s such a struggle, and what you can do to help them overcome it.
Why Some HSP Kids Struggle with Confidence
All parents have heard how important confidence is in kids — and how it helps them develop skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
What’s much more mysterious is why some kids seem so confident, and others seem much less so. Highly sensitive kids, in particular, tend to need a little more support in developing confidence.
The Biology of Confidence
Unsurprisingly, confidence has its roots in our biology. Highly sensitive people have a strong Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS). The BIS is sort of the opposite of the brain’s reward system: It governs our response to things like punishments, boredom, and other negative stimuli. Because of their wiring, HSPs will “pause and check” frequently when faced with new experiences. This means that highly sensitive kids often take far more time than their peers to join in something new or get used to a situation — like a friend’s birthday party.
An active BIS also tends to mean higher levels of anxiety, at least in these sorts of new or threatening situations. That “pause and check” response involves thinking through all the potential bad outcomes. For a child, that usually means social threats (being made fun of, making a mistake, not being accepted), which are just as scary as physical threats. Will they get laughed at if they don’t know the rules of a party game?
For Sensitive Kids, Confidence Is More Than Just Genes
It’s not just biological. HSP children face other factors that can really affect confidence. For example:
- HSPs account for only 15 to 20 percent of the population, so HSP children are often “different” from their peers;
- HSPs experience strong emotional reactions, and being rejected or embarrassed is a much bigger deal;
- Your HSP child may get overstimulated in many situations that other kids find “fun” (like a concert); and
- For male HSP kids in particular, being sensitive is not always cool. They may find themselves bullied purely because of their sensitive personality.
Put all that together, and it means highly sensitive kids tend to worry more about things that could embarrass them, react more strongly to things that do embarrass them, and maybe even stand at higher risk of being ostracized in the first place. So it’s no surprise that many will struggle with confidence, whether joining in at a party or performing on stage.
Sensitive Kids Can Still Be Confident (and When They Are, It’s Amazing)
Every sensitive child, no matter how shy or nervous they are, is able to develop confidence. And, as a parent, helping them do so is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
Self-confidence (what we think and feel about ourselves) is important for communication, relationships, reaching goals, and even later career success. So when we support our children to grow in confidence, we are putting a down payment on their future.
For highly sensitive children, that’s arguably even more true. Not just because HSPs face a stigma, and confidence helps them overcome it — although that’s very real. But also because HSPs, in general, tend to be even more affected by their childhood environment than non-HSPs. A healthy environment doesn’t just make them “well adjusted,” it helps them shine as highly gifted individuals.
In other words: a confident, happy HSP child is likely to turn their natural strengths into superpowers. That includes creativity, people skills, a kind heart, and an infectious positivity. It also includes their intuitive ability to make connections that others miss.
And it turns out, there are a lot of things you can do to help them get there.
7 Things Highly Sensitive Children Need to Build Confidence
1. Help them understand high sensitivity and that it’s okay to be an HSP.
From an early age, your child may notice they are more sensitive than their peers. They may recognize that they are the only child who is afraid to go on the big slide, the only one who is too scared to perform at a school assembly, or that they cry more than other kids. They might even comment on this.
Being an HSP is normal (about 1 in 5 people!) and there are incredibly special traits that come with it. Helping your child to see the positive sides to being an HSP will contribute to how they see themselves — and build their self-confidence.
2. Listen to them.
HSP children can take longer to get their ideas out or think through things, and are sensitive to how you respond. If they are interrupted, criticized, or if you finish their sentences, your child may think their ideas don’t matter or are no good. This will influence how they feel about themselves.
They need uninterrupted, non-critical, focused attention. Show interest in your child’s ideas (even if you have a better or more correct idea) — it’s important for their confidence.
3. Model confidence for them.
Our children are watching us all the time for cues on how to behave in the world. If you are shy or lack confidence, they will notice. This could be a good opportunity to challenge yourself. And even if you don’t feel confident, there is no reason why you can’t look it! Work on standing up taller, lifting your head up as you enter a room, making strong eye contact, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. As you learn more “confidence skills”, this will rub off on your child.
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4. Encourage practice, praise persistence, and be positive about failures.
Kids get confidence and resilience from seeing that they can push through life’s challenges. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt talks about teaching your child to say these three phrases:
- “I can do it” (believing in yourself),
- “I want to make the effort” (motivating yourself), and
- “I will give it a good try” (committing yourself to it)
And if they fail, that’s totally okay! Show them that failure is a healthy, normal part of life — a temporary setback. And, since confidence comes with repeatedly succeeding, steer them toward challenges they can succeed at eventually, and give them positive support when they have a setback.
5. Teach them to visualize it.
Imagining and doing are very similar to the brain. HSP are great at thinking in depth and imagining a situation, so use this to your child’s advantage. They may be imagining all the negative things that could happen in a situation (all those risks), but you can help them imagine the positives instead.
One easy technique that’s backed by research is mentally travelling into the future and imagining the great things that might happen.
If your child has a party to go to, for example, you could talk about and imagine some of the exciting parts — how there will be a delicious cake and lots of yummy food, how the games will be really fun, and everyone will be laughing and having a good time. This alone can help your child feel more confident going into it.
6. Support them in solving problems for themselves as much as possible.
Let them give it a go first before you offer to help. Don’t jump in too early. HSPs need a bit more processing time (because we process so deeply), so allow them that time.
If they are nervous for the school play, ask them what they think might help them feel calmer (rather than suggesting something). Or, if they need confidence to talk to another child, see if they can work out a conversation starter. Coming up with their own solutions gives your child confidence in their abilities.
7. Teach self-evaluation rather than self-criticism, especially for HSP teens.
HSPs can be highly critical of themselves, and self-criticism drives confidence way down.
According to Dr. Pickhardt, so does parental criticism — even when it’s unintentional. For example, if your child or teen makes a mistake, it’s important to talk about the behavior that wasn’t okay rather than criticize their character. In other words, it’s much more helpful to say, “You need to do your homework before you play video games,” rather than, “You’re being lazy.”
A little positive assurance helps too — maybe, “You’re smart, and you work hard on things you care about. I know you can get this homework done.”
Ultimately, every child will have to confront self-doubt and their share of failures. And every child is able to overcome it and build confidence anyway — even highly sensitive children. It’s okay for your HSP child to not be confident all the time. Especially when they’re getting the message that they have what it takes.