For five years, I felt great about my efforts. I was setting a good example by being sober, my husband modeled healthy moderation and we were raising our kids with the support of a proverbial village of families we’d known and trusted for years.
Then, in 2018, my husband had a job opportunity that required us to leave that community and move to another state: Vermont. Our older son was already in college, so the change didn’t affect him too much, but our younger son, Finn, who was about to transition from middle to high school, was devastated.
“You are ruining my life,” he said, when we told him about the move. There was no yelling, no wild gesticulations, just a calm statement of fact, which was much, much worse.
Before we moved, Finn had plenty of protections heaped on the prevention side of his metaphorical substance abuse scale: physical, financial and emotional stability; lack of stress; and his friends’ parents looking out for him and providing healthy models for sobriety, support and coping. My job was to figure out what I could do to balance the weight of his risk by loading the other side of the scale with as much protection as possible.
I could not help him make new friends, let alone pick their parents, but I could help restore Finn’s sense of control, agency and hope by building his sense of self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy, as defined by the psychologist Albert Bandura, is one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed; to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions and life; and to cope with challenges in a positive way. Self-efficacy is also the foundation for so many other positive traits, including resilience, grit, fortitude and perseverance. Self-efficacy is what gives kids a sense of control, agency and hope, even when the world around them feels out of control.
People with a weak sense of self-efficacy, on the other hand, tend to be pessimistic, inflexible, quick to give up, have low self-esteem, exhibit learned helplessness, get depressed, and feel fatalistic and hopeless. Not coincidentally, people who exhibit these traits are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to alleviate these negative feelings.
Lack of self-efficacy is a risk factor for substance abuse and other negative health outcomes, but when converted into its opposite and equal force, a strong sense of self-efficacy, it can be one of the most powerful protective factors we can give our children. Here are some practical ways parents can boost kids’ perceptions of their own self-efficacy and help kids with low self-efficacy get back on the right path:
Start with yourself.
Model, model, model self-efficacy for your kids. Start questioning your own assertions of “I can’t” with “I can’t yet,” then turn that perspective outward, toward your children. That helps kids believe competence is not congenital, it is learned, and often hard-won.
Give kids skills.
Praise alone won’t give your child a sense of self-efficacy or competence; these things come from the actual experience of trying, doing, failing, trying again, and succeeding. Give kids age-appropriate tasks that help them stay engaged and challenged while granting opportunities to taste success. Teach them how to make dinner from start to finish and see what they create on their own. Encourage your teen to take the family car to the garage and have that rattle behind the dash fixed.
Optimism is about more than seeing a glass as half full; it’s a mind-set that has a very real impact on physical and mental health. Optimistic children are better able to resist learned helplessness and depression, whereas pessimists are much more likely to give in to feelings of helplessness and are consequently at much higher risk of suffering from a wide range of negative mental and physical health outcomes. According to the psychologist Martin Seligman, author of “The Optimistic Child,” pessimistic kids see obstacles as permanent, pervasive, and their fault. Optimistic children, on the other hand, view setbacks as temporary, specific and attributable to behaviors that can be changed. As Dr. Seligman explains: “Children learn their pessimism, in part, from their parents and teachers, so it is very important that you model optimism for your children as a first step.”
Make failures specific, but generalize success.
Guide children toward optimism by framing their success as generally as possible. If your daughter has a good day in math class, help her globalize that success. Instead of “I did well in math class because I paid attention,” move toward “School is going well because I am doing all my assignments on time.” Help her expand her success beyond the boundaries of one class or one day.
Be specific in your praise.
General praise, such as “Good job!” is useless when it comes to bolstering self-efficacy in kids because it has no real meaning. Aim for behavior-specific praise that reinforces practices you want to encourage, such as, “I’m so proud of you for sticking with that project even when you got frustrated.” Behavior-specific praise describes the desired behavior, is specific to the child, and offers a positive, clear, statement.
Don’t go overboard with your praise.
Experts on the use of behavior-specific praise in the classroom recommend a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of praise to correction, a ratio I have tried to maintain with my own students and children. I teach and parent older teens, but this guideline is effective for kids of any age. Research shows it not only boosts good behavior, but also creates a sense of community and positivity that helps kids hear our constructive criticism when it inevitably comes.
A belief in self-efficacy, Dr. Bandura writes in his book “Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control,” is “the foundation of human motivation, well-being, and accomplishments.” That might have been what my son needed most to get started in a new school, and not just as a protection against substance abuse. It could help him set and achieve goals, view obstacles as surmountable, have a lower fear of failure and approach new challenges with the assumption that he could succeed.
While I can’t know which, if any, of the preventions I’ve heaped on Finn during his adolescence will inoculate him against developing a substance use disorder, I do know that boosting his self-efficacy has been essential to building up his sense of competence, well-being and happiness.
One year after the move, Finn and I hiked up to the top of the mountain behind our house to pick wild huckleberries. We’d spent an hour or so crawling around on our hands and knees talking about whatever drifted through our minds, when Finn sat back on his heels, dumped a handful of berries into his mouth and admitted to being happy. What’s more, he was looking forward to his second year of high school. As we sat together, eating huckleberries and looking out over the Vermont landscape, I felt the weight of his risk ease from my shoulders, at least for a while.
Jessica Lahey is a former teacher and the author, most recently, of “The Addiction Inoculation,” from which this article is adapted.