Islands of Competence

26 Jul

A parent once told me that the most valuable thing I ever said involved the importance of building “islands of competence.” I can’t claim credit for that one — it was borrowed from another psychologist, Robert Brooks. But I agree that it’s one of the most useful concepts around.

The idea is that one of the most important tasks for an elementary school child is developing areas of growing skill and competence. Self-esteem really comes from developing capabilities, and in the process, children learn the importance of practice and persistence. Maybe it seems obvious, but we need to keep reminding your child not to give up, to hang in there, even when good results don’t happen right away. This can be really challenging with an anxious child, since anxiety is so much about avoiding what makes you uncomfortable.

It’s obvious why all children should have “islands of competence,” but there is also a more specific reason when it comes to an anxious child. When you deal with anxiety, it is essential to remember that you can’t “not think about something.” The more you try not to think about something, the more you find yourself dwelling on it. So it is extremely helpful to have compelling alternatives for how you would like to spend your time. In other words, what would you rather be doing than worrying? You don’t have to pretend you aren’t anxious, but you can still focus on activities and goals that are truly engaging, interesting or comforting. Focusing on these goals can help you ride out the moments of anxiety and make them more tolerable.

I need to insert a note of urgency here about what I am saying. If children do not develop at least several ways of defining themselves as competent by the time they reach middle school, they will be all the more vulnerable to peer pressure, or will seek solace in endless computer time. Learning that you get good things through practice and persistence will generalize over the years to help your child face a variety of other challenges.

copyright@Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

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