Blog: My Son Seems So Uncomfortable in His Own Skin


My son is a sweet, loving, silly 11-year-old. Unfortunately, in the last few years, he has struggled in school, which has significantly decreased his self esteem. He often over-apologizes, says things to gain approval, will do whatever anyone else wants to do and doesn’t share (or have) his own opinion. It breaks my heart that he seems uncomfortable in his own skin. We have found acting to be an activity he enjoys, and is good at, so we encourage that.

Your son sounds like a sweetheart; it must be very hard to watch him struggling without being anchored to a solid sense of himself. I’m glad you sent in this question, and will share a few ideas that may be of help.

• Confidence-building is an inside job. We become more sure of ourselves when we have the chance to stretch and grow beyond our limitations. Allow him whatever opportunities you can to pursue his acting interests. Attend plays or musical performances (even at your local community college), look for theater camps and encourage him to read stories about the childhood challenges of some of his favorite actors to discover how they moved past limitations. Be sure to watch for other areas where your son shows interest and might enjoy being challenged to learn and grow beyond his comfort zone.

• Help him associate learning with experiences outside of a school setting. Visit museums that have hands-on exhibits so he can engage with what he’s exploring. Go to interesting lectures or readings with speakers who are passionate about their subject. Introduce him to chefs, interior designers or pilots who are enjoying success in their field, but may have struggled in school. Many kids fail to understand that intelligence comes in many “flavors”; broaden his horizons about what it means to be learn and be smart.

• Allow him to feel, not just hear that he matters. While it’s great to tell your son how terrific he is, children need to interact with the real world to genuinely feel they can make a positive impact on the lives of others. Perhaps he can volunteer for a few hours a week tutoring younger children at an after school program. Or maybe he can read to an elderly neighbor. Or he may be able to fundraise for a cause he cares about. We all are lifted up when we engage in meaningful activities. Help him find something that fits for him.

• Honor his requests in ways that foster assertiveness. If your son is overly passive and compliant, pay special attention to moments when he does assert his will. This doesn’t mean giving him donuts for dinner every night just because he asks, but if he expresses a preference for going to one movie rather than another, perhaps you can consider honoring his request more often.

• Encourage him to forge healthy friendships. Your son sounds like a gentle boy who may lose himself in the presence of strong personalities. Ask his teacher to suggest other children with similar temperaments, and arrange time for them to get together outside of the school setting where they may be shy or intimidated. Sometimes an outing fosters connection more easily than having a new friend over to your house, where some children feel awkward about keeping things interesting. Bowling or miniature golf can be good activities that allow kids to get to know each other while sharing a fun experience.

• Help him identify and express his opinions. Ask him what he thinks about a topic in the news. Invite him to explain something in depth that he heard in current events or create a mock debate where you pick a topic out of a hat and have him argue for or against it, like, “Why the school day should/ should not begin at 10:00 a.m.” or “Why people should/ should not be heavily fined for littering.” Help him practice taking a stand, and be sure to listen respectfully to his point of view.

I can’t count the number of children and teens I’ve worked with who genuinely believed they were stupid, despite being brilliant at something outside of a school setting. Many are helped by taking Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence test (available online), which allows them to better understand that being “school smart” is only one manifestation of giftedness. Hopefully these ideas will help you help your son discover his unique brand of genius.

Susan Stiffelman is a family therapist and author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles.” This column originally appeared on