Confidence is an essential need that must be met before a child can thrive.

What do we mean by “confidence is a need”? Let’s take a look at a guy named Abraham Maslow, who created the basic concept of Psych 101: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

What made Maslow unique was that rather than focusing on people who were mentally ill and trying to figure out what went wrong, he was one of the few psychologists who studied people who were “exemplary” — or in other words, extremely capable and high achieving.

Maslow asked himself what made these people great. What was it about the way their brain worked or how they experienced life? Turns out, the one thing he found in common was: They all knew they had to have their basic needs met before they could go on to achieve.

We may think basic needs are just food, shelter, water and sleep. However, Maslow says our needs go beyond physical needs. There are emotional needs that need to be met as well. These are safety, connection and confidence.

Once physical needs are met, the first emotional need is safety. This not only means physical safety but emotional safety as well. Do our children feel safe to fail, safe to talk, or safe to be themselves without judgment?

After safety comes connection. Connection means do our children have meaningful and consistent connection with the adults in their lives? Do they know they are loved and “seen?”

Confidence is the last need to be met. Meaning confidence can’t be built unless all other needs are met. And people can’t thrive unless confidence is built.

So how can we build confidence in our children?

Building confidence is one of the more elusive needs and it can be difficult to know exactly how to do that.

Let’s first try to define what confidence is and feels like. Confidence is the feeling of being good at something. It’s a sense of independence and the feeling that they have the ability to change things for themselves. After a child begins to feel safe and connected with those around them, they can start working on becoming confident in their abilities and developing pride in their work.

While there are many ways to build confidence, here are four effective habits to establish that can help our children feel more confident in themselves:

Build confidence by trusting

When you are concerned about your child’s achievement levels in school, sports, or the arts, resist the urge to lecture on the seriousness of the situations or to problem solve for them. Instead, give some calm reassurance and encouragement that the child will “be OK” or “figure it out.” Say something like, “I’m sure you can solve this.”

Kids, and especially adolescents, often hide their worries, which can lead adults to believe that they aren’t taking life seriously. Anxious parents pile on added stress by saying, “Remember that your grades now will b e on your transcript forever,” or “If you don’t do this…” Instead, the best way to build confidence is often to express confidence.

Build confidence by naming the problem

Pyschologists will often “name it to tame it.” When a child frequently encounters a difficulty in their life, create a name for that challenge and refer to it as something external from them. For example:

  • Instead of, “You shouldn’t be so sacred, it’s not a big deal,” try, “It looks like the worry bug has pulled the alarm! Is this really an emergency? What do you think?”
  • Instead of, “You have a problem being able to turn off the video games!” try, “It looks like the X-box has taken over again!”
  • Instead of, “I know you could do this if you would just try!” try, “I know you are working really hard, but ADHD is still getting in the way. What would be helpful?”

This practice of “externalization” helps prevent feeling discouraged or demoralized by problems, and changes the problem-solving dynamic from a “me fixing you” to an “us fixing it.”

Build confidence by remembering

At the end of the day, take some time to reflect and review the positive things you did together and experienced that day. Reviewing positive memories reinforces a child’s confidence.

Negative memories are said to be more “sticky” than positive ones, so people often need help remembering their good deeds and successes. For young children, just reviewing the events at the end of a typical day can improve their ability to reflect and reinforce successes. Older kids can use these memories to create important metaphors for hard work or success in life.

Build confidence by playing and practicing

Playtime can be helpful for practicing skills and building confidence. For example, if you’re pretending to be a prince locked in a tower, encourage your child to take a risk, try something new, or solve a problem in the story in a creative way. Praise your child for the skill she exhibits through the imaginative game.

In play, kids practice for life and challenges with power and courage, roles and rules, and there are constant opportunities for adults to acknowledge and praise their competence.

These are just a few ways we can help build confidence in our children. Confidence is not built over night and must be a consistent and constant effort of building our children up. Even though it may not always be apparent in the surface, our children’s greatest desire is to succeed and make their parents proud. Parents can take every opportunity to reassure their children that they are proud of and believe in them. These opportunities will be what builds our children’s confidence, and ultimately, helps them thrive.

United Way is on a mission to help every child in our community feel safe, connected, and confident. Twice a month in this space, we’ll be sharing ideas from local professionals, parents, and friends about how you can do that for the kids in your life. In the meantime, find us at, or on Facebook, Instagram.