Kids who lag behind their peers in terms of height, weight, or strength often struggle with confidence. Physical prowess may not be critical for adult success, but it is often a boon for children. Those that look markedly different or struggle with sports can feel left out or somehow less-than. Self-esteem is a complicated thing, but parents can absolutely help. By talking to children about their gifts, parents can teach children how to play to their strengths, which turns out to be more important later in life than the ability to do pull-ups.

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“There are different issues for school-age boys and girls, but I think the key is working with your child to see what they are really good at,” says Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a licensed psychologist, board-certified analyst, and director of child psychology unit at Nova Southeastern University. It’s important, after all, to establish that a child can be good at things. Once that premise is accepted, it’s easier to have conversations about goals, specialization, and role models. “You can find an athlete who isn’t as tall and point out that out then talk about how fast he is or how precise he is,” Lesack adds. “Every sport has figures of unremarkable size who are successful and who can perform at a high level because they have such amazing technical skills.”

That might mean spending more time looking at Allen Iverson highlights than LeBron James highlights. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s still important to know if a kid is frustrated because they have a very specific desire to do something that requires size or feels locked out of opportunity in some way. What kids want to do is as important as what they can do.

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“Ask kids what they really like, because it’s okay to like things even if you aren’t good at them,” advises Lesack. “We don’t have to be good at everything. Tell them what you like, even if you aren’t good at it. It might be dancing. It might be golf. It might be guitar.”

How to Give a Physically Smaller Kid More Confidence

  • Find appropriate heroes – people of all sizes in all pursuits can do great things. Parents can help kids find the heroes they identify with and that inspire them.
  • Help kids identify their strengths – very few teams are composed of identical skill sets. Kids can find their natural talents and develop them.
  • They don’t have to be masters – it’s okay to love something and be mediocre at it.
  • Promote the inner attributes over the external – kids can’t help if they’re tall, but they can sure decide to be excellent people.

Girls can certainly feel the sting of gym class rejection (and enjoy the benefits of bringing other skills to the field or court), but social media is exposing them to the brutal gristmill of popularity and body image even earlier than before. Lesack has noticed it can be uniquely frustrating for a girl entering into middle school to be smaller than her classmates.

“For girls, it can often be predicated on appearances – taller girls may seem prettier, or more mature,” observes Lesack. “It’s very different when it’s based on appearance instead of skill set, but even those ideas can be explored. A girl’s not prettier because she’s taller, and she’s not mature because of her height. Maybe it’s the way she speaks. Maybe it’s the way she holds herself. Maybe it’s her composure. Those are all traits someone can practice and cultivate.”

Ultimately, teaching kids how to navigate these feelings are important. Things aren’t always going to work out for a kid. They’re sometimes going to feel less popular than they would like. The trials of childhood don’t just shape the kind of person a kid grows into, but the kind of citizen, the kind of problem solver, and the kind of parent. It’s worth teaching them their inherent value.

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