Help children become as familiar as possible with what is likely to happen in an encounter. Predictability reduces fear of the unknown. Knowing what’s going to happen allows children to prepare themselves for it, and perhaps to be predisposed to find enjoyment in it. In this way, successful self-fulfilling prophecy is built into the experience.
This principle applies to parents in many ways. For example, let’s say parents are having a party and they would like the children to be involved in some way. To keep the encounter predictable, tell the children names of guests who will be present at the party and exactly what you expect the children to do. If you would like them to be around and helpful throughout the party-taking coats, passing hors d’oeuvres, and the like-make sure they know how to do it. Demonstrate if necessary. If you simply want them to say hello to the guests and then go back to their rooms, tell them so. Also, they appreciate not being surprised by a last-minute change of plans, such as having to dress up in a hurry.
The same kinds of explanations are very helpful to children in building self-esteem and avoiding embarrassment if they know precisely what’s expected of them when you take them to weddings, funerals, or any unusual religious or social event.
Even when you’re taking a child for a first haircut, describe the procedure and the process to keep any possible surprises to a minimum.
Any medical examination or physical process with which a child is unfamiliar can be thoroughly described and discussed with the child beforehand, for example, menstruation, first gynecological exam, an appendectomy or tonsillectomy, a glucose tolerance test, a blood test, and the like.
Dentists often tell children, before a dental procedure is begun, what they will do and what the child is expected to do. Then, even if the process gets uncomfortable, it’s not as fearful as it could have been had the child not known what to expect.
Teachers often tell students what material an exam is going to cover. It may not be an easy exam, but it is not quite as fearful as it would be if students had no idea what to expect.
Among the children I tutored, academic skills were always a problem and testing was always dreaded. Usually I was only the tutor; somebody else did the testing. But I did whatever I could to keep test surprises to a minimum. I explained who would come and what they looked like, so the personal appearance of the tester would not be a surprise. I described what the test would be like and how long it would take. I might even give them some typical kinds of questions. It also really helped to evoke the child’s own questions about the testing process, even if I had to encourage their questions.
And I always assured children I’d talk over the results of the testing at over next meeting (or soon at least) so they were not left wondering and worrying about how well or how poorly they did. Leaving children in doubt about how they did does not help build self-esteem. Low self-esteemers tend to view not knowing in a negative light. For them, no news is bad news. In sharing the results of their testing with them, I esteem their right to know themselves and their performance.
When I am personally going to administer an intelligence test or some other test, especially where the responses are timed, I explain to the children the test is designed for a wide range of children, some of whom are much older than they are: “Some questions may seems very easy, while others seems very hard. Don’t be upset if you can’t answer all questions; you are not expected to.” I usually add, “Nobody can. You will get some of them, and that is just fine.”
Those kinds of comments are one small way of helping preserve a child’s self-image. Surprises generate fear, and fear can destroy not only self-esteem, but a child’s ability to function well. If children experience themselves as failing-and that’s what low self-esteemers tend to do-then any situation offering an opportunity for frequent failure has the potential of demoralizing children and creating a negative self-image rather than a positive one.
When children don’t know what’s expected of them, they feel awkward, confused, and fearful. For them to feel welcome and accepted and successful in a situation, it helps if they know what to expect.
Self-Esteem Principle: Fear is a great destroyer of self-esteem. Predictability reduces fear.