Injecting confidence lowers confidence

Parents and teachers often respond to a child who lacks confidence by trying to inject the child with confidence: You are great! You are very smart! You are such a great artist, and so on. By using these kinds of compliments, parents and teacher try to directly refute the child’s insecurity.

Types of compliments

For a long time, people have believed that for children with low self-esteem any compliment would work to boost their confidence. Later it became clear that we have to differentiate between process compliments (you drew that well!) versus trait compliments (you are a good drawer!) and general compliments (nice drawing!). Carol Dwecks research shows us that process compliments, as opposed to trait or intelligence compliments, foster a growth mindset in children.

Refute insecurity

It turns out that adults are more inclined to use trait and intelligence compliments when they deal with a child who has low self-esteem These compliments refer to the child’s intelligence, personality and talents. They believe, consciously or unconsciously, that praising the child’s traits will be a direct and precise counter balance to the child’s low self-esteem. The child is insecure (I am not very smart) so we should praise their intelligence (but you ARE very smart).


In a study conducted by Brummelman et al, it was found that:

  1. Adults were more inclined to give trait compliments to children with low self-esteem and less inclined to give general compliments and process compliments
  2. Adults were more inclined to give process compliments and general compliments to children with high self esteem
  3. Children who had low self-esteem and who received a trait compliment (you are great) and subsequently failed the task were more a shamed of their failure than children who had low self-esteem and received a process compliment (you have done well) and subsequently failed the task

Downward spiral

To summarise; trait compliments contribute to a downward spiral of undermining the already low confidence of the insecure child. Adults are more inclined to give trait compliments to children with low self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem are more sensitive to trait feedback. They focus more on themselves and on their insecurities and are overly sensitive to the judgements of significant people in their lives. The feeling of conditional regard may also play a role here; I am only worthy of love and a good person if I perform well and behave as I should. When children with low self-esteem fail a task, they are more inclined to attribute this failure to their negative personality traits or low intelligence (I am dumb) instead of to their approach (I have not found the right strategy to do the task yet).

Process compliments

Injecting confidence by using trait or intelligence praise lowers the confidence in children who already have little of it. The effectiveness of process compliments applies to all children, however for children with low self-esteem the negative effects of trait and intelligence compliments turned out to be even stronger.

Don’t follow your intuition

So, next time you feel like praising a child’s intelligence or talents, because you sense he feels very insecure, think twice. Don’t follow your intuition to try to directly refute the child’s perception by giving a trait compliment or intelligence compliment. Instead, use a growth mindset intervention.

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