Learning Differences & Self-esteem: 4 tips to boost their confidence

Updated: May 28, 2020

“I can’t do that”

“I’m stupid”

“That’s too hard”

These are just a few phrases I hear sometimes from the kids I work with. If you are the parent of someone with learning differences, you have likely heard your child say things like this. I once worked with a little girl in a cognitive program who had such little faith in herself that when I tried to get her to do a new fun activity in the program she would immediately tear up and insist she couldn’t do it before I even explained what it was that she was going to do. She was so sure she was going to fail at everything she tried, despite the fact that she was a pretty bright girl and had passed several difficult challenges I’d given her. She just couldn’t see it.

Watching someone you care about suffer like this is heart-breaking. Unfortunately, children with learning differences often struggle the most with low self-esteem and self-confidence. This is unacceptable and oftentimes, to me, more concerning than the learning differences they have.

A dyslexic child who is bad at reading, but is fearless and believes in themselves can conquer the world. A dyslexic child who figured out how to read well but believes they are incapable will always struggle.

The same goes for other learning differences as well.

If you have a child with learning differences, I believe the most important thing you can do is teach them to believe in themselves.

Since this article is going to focus on self-esteem and self-confidence, let’s take a second to talk about these two terms and what they mean.

Self-esteem refers to the general outlook one has regarding his/herself. Self-confidence is related to one’s belief that they can accomplish specific tasks or how one views their abilities. Self-confidence can vary from task to task. While the two terms are different, both affect each other and it is important to work on these simultaneously.

Hearing your child say things like “I’m too stupid” can be heartbreaking and it is tough to know where to begin with rebuilding their self-esteem and self-confidence. Here are our 4 top tips for getting this process started.

1. Educate them on their learning difference

So often when parents get the diagnosis for their child’s learning difference, they panic and don’t want to tell their child for fear that this will make them feel badly about themselves. If this is something you are going through - I get it, and your heart is in the right place. However, I strongly advise you don’t hold this information back from your child.

Your child’s learning difference is a part of who they are and understanding it will be both empowering and freeing for your child. Not knowing a learning difference is behind their challenges is the difference between your child telling herself “reading is hard because I’m dyslexic and my brain works differently,” and “reading is hard because I am stupid.”

We want to protect our kids because we fear that if they know they are different they will feel dumb and think they have less to offer than their peers and we don’t want them to be treated differently. But your child is smart, and because of this they already know they are different. They see themselves falling behind the other students in their classes, and if they start receiving accommodations they will know something is up.

Not talking with them about their learning differences when they clearly know they have them implies that they should feel shame about their differences and that it is something that should be hidden and never spoken of.

We need to do the opposite of that! We need to teach them about who they are and why they are awesome and we need to teach them that they should never apologize for being different or try to hide who they are.

When we recommend talking to your child about their learning difference, we don’t want you to give them their specific label and then stop the conversation. We truly want you and your child to educate yourselves on the full nature of their difference. Educating your child about their learning difference doesn’t have to be a negative process. Often times with learning differences, there are many strengths associated with the different way in which their brain works - spend a lot of time here!

Being able to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, the way your brain works, and why you struggle so much in certain areas is more freeing to your child than condemning because it gives them a valid reason why that isn’t “I’m dumb.”

Together with your child, read articles, watch videos, attend conferences, and talk about everything you learn. Understanding that being different doesn't mean being less than is the first step in rebuilding your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence.

2. Give them new language to use

During my sessions, students are simply not allowed to say things like “I’m stupid” or “I can’t do this.” Instead, I try to give them other things they can say. For example, when they say “I can’t do this” I tell them “you can’t do this yet.” Such a simple change makes a big difference and it makes me so happy when I hear my students start to say “I can’t do this yet” because it implies that one day they will be able to. Adding this simple word changes their whole frame of mind from defeat to belief.

Language is powerful and it is important to help kids find the right words to use that can allow them to express their frustration without talking down on themselves. Saying things like “I can’t do this yet” gives them phrases they can use to vent when things are hard, but that are still positive and build them up.

Some students I’ve worked with have established such a habit of talking negatively about themselves that it takes a long time for them to break it. Besides giving them different language to use, I’ll also have the following conversation with them:

If there was someone in your life who constantly told you to your face that you are stupid, you are a failure, you can’t do anything right, and that you would never figure this out…. Would you want to be friends with them? No, probably not. Would you ever say any of those things to your best friend? Of course not! So why do you say them to yourself?

This helps to get a dialog going between us and at the very least helps them see why it isn’t okay to talk to themselves like that.

Educating your child on their learning differences will also help give them new language to use when they are experiencing frustration, discouragement, or harsh words from their peers. The more they know about their learning difference, the better they will be able to communicate their difficulties to their friends, and the more compassionate they are likely to be to themselves.

3. Spend just as much time, if not more, focusing on their strengths as you do their weaknesses

I learned the hard way by deciding to be a biology minor in college that I, in fact, do not like biology. Actually, I really hated it. I thought it would be interesting but I dreaded nothing more in college than reading my biology textbooks and memorizing the process of cell division. It was boring to me and frankly, I was terrible at it.

If I had to spend all my free time working with a biology tutor, I would be a pretty frustrated and unhappy person. That’s how your child feels when they have to spend all their time working on things they dislike and are bad at.

Now, I’m not saying their specific intervention programs aren’t important or that you should discontinue them, but I urge you to be careful about making their life revolve around that thing.

Focus on your child and find a club or an activity that they excel at and show them that their success in that activity is just as important.

Prioritizing their strengths just as much, or more, than their weaknesses sends them the message that they are talented, valuable, and have something important to contribute. This can go a long way to help improve your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence.

4. Seek out a role model, mentor, or a community for your child to be a part of

Sometimes no matter how many pep talks we give our kids, and no matter how many times we tell them they are amazing and special, it only goes so far because “you’re my mom. You have to say that.”

I still think you should give your child those pep talks and never stop telling them how amazing they are, but if they are really having a tough time at school it might take more to get them to believe you and see themselves clearly.

Children are heavily impacted by other people in their lives. If you can find a role model or a mentor for them to connect with, that person can help make a huge difference in their life. Bonus points if this person has the same learning difference as them. Seeing an adult who had the same struggles as you but is successful and confident anyway can be really empowering for your child.

Further, one of our greatest needs as humans is the need to belong. We want to be accepted and feel like we are a valuable member of a group. If your child is missing out on this, that could seriously impact their self-esteem, self-confidence, and general outlook. Help your child find a group to belong to either in school or outside of school. If you look into your community you may find different clubs or groups specifically for children with the same types of learning challenges as your child.

If your dyslexic (or other learning difference) child can be surrounded by other kids who are dyslexic and have the same struggles as them, it can make them feel a lot less isolated. Sometimes our kids get the idea that they are the only ones in the world who struggle this much. It is so important that they see that they aren’t alone!

Watching your child struggle and think poorly of themselves, especially when you see how bright and talented they are, is extremely hard for any parent. Sometimes the poor self-esteem and self-confidence our children have can cause them to struggle even more than their learning differences do. We want to see every child succeed, but more importantly, we want to see every child believe they can succeed.

We hope these tips are a good place to start with improving your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Got any other tips or experiences you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments - we’d love to hear from you!

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