How to Boost Your Teen’s Confidence if They’re Not in a Top Secondary School

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It’s easy to say that grades don’t define us, but the truth is that we’re all prone to making snap judgments about others based on limited information. Even as adults, we may be slightly impressed to learn that a new acquaintance attended a prestigious university, or we might think of someone as being ‘smarter’ simply because they qualified for a ‘better’ secondary school. 

Conversely, we may talk about those who haven’t done as well in a less favourable light. Children are perceptive, and they will realise that their grades do affect how they’re perceived by the world at large.

A local survey conducted on over 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 15 found that seven in 10 felt “angry,” “worried,” or “sad” when they thought about school exams. And while those who have made it to good schools will have their own sets of stressors, those in neighbourhood schools may have to deal with feeling “mediocre” or “less accomplished.” 

Of course, we all want our children to aim high and work hard to achieve goals, but ultimately, do remember that only about 10% of each year’s cohort (around 4,000 out of 40,000 students) will qualify for Singapore’s top schools, otherwise known as Integrated Programme or IP schools. This means that the vast majority of our children will be studying in ‘regular’ or neighbourhood schools. The sooner you come to terms with this as a parent, the easier it will be for you to provide the emotional support that your child needs.

Read on as we highlight some ways to build your teen’s self-esteem and confidence, if they’ve not qualified for a top secondary school.

Have a Plan for Discussing Grades at Home

Is it appropriate to discuss results with your teen, who may already be suffering from low morale? What should you say if they fail an exam, or score lower than what you think is ideal?

We know that this can be a sensitive topic, and yet, it presents a critical opportunity for teaching resilience and positive coping strategies. For better conversations, try to focus on empathy and solutions, rather than criticism. 

Below are two common-but-tricky scenarios, with suggested responses.

Situation A: Your child comes home with a grade that’s lower than expected, but when presenting it to you, they seem either content or dismissive, saying it’s “good enough” or “OK.”

What you can do: This requires a delicate balance between acknowledging your teen’s feelings and guiding them towards higher standards. You can start with an affirming approach, by saying, “I’m glad to see you’re not too hard on yourself — that’s important. But I also know you have the potential to do even better. Can we talk about what ‘good enough’ means to you?”

This opens a non-confrontational dialogue that respects your teen’s perspective while subtly challenging them to reassess their own standards. Continue by exploring the reasons behind their satisfaction with the lower grade, with questions like: “What made this grade feel OK for you? Were there parts of this subject that you found particularly challenging or maybe didn’t enjoy as much?”

Finally, offer support for improvement in a way that aligns with their own goals, not just academic expectations. You could say: “How do you feel about aiming a bit higher next time? What support do you need to make that happen?”

Situation B: Your teen has received their grades and is visibly upset, but when you try to discuss it, they shut down, showing a reluctance to talk about their feelings or the results.

What you can do: Approach them with gentle understanding, giving them space while making it clear you’re there when they’re ready. You might say: “I see you’re really upset about your grades, and it’s OK if you’re not ready to talk about it yet. I’m here for you, no matter what. Whenever you feel like sharing, I’ll be ready to listen and support you.”

This response acknowledges your teen’s current state and offers them control over when and how they wish to engage. When they’re ready to have a discussion, you can ask open-ended questions like “What do you think was the biggest challenge for you this term?” or “How do you feel about the subjects you’re studying? Are there any you’d like more help with?” This helps them to reflect on their experiences and identify specific areas where they can improve.

If your teen consistently refuses to discuss their feelings, you can share your own challenges, which they might find relevant. In particular, talk about dealing with your own emotions, and how you seek support from those around you. Encourage your teen to find ways to express themselves, such as through a journal or a creative outlet. If need be, reach out to a school counsellor or therapist to support your teen.

Teach Your Teen to Handle Social Pressure

If teens feel that they haven’t done well in milestone exams or qualified for a good school, they may feel stressed about attending social gatherings with friends and family. Here’s how you can help your teen to work through uncomfortable situations.

Scenario A: During a discussion on school achievements, a relative says to your teen, “Well, as long as you’re happy with your school, that’s what matters.” The comment, while intended to reassure, might imply that your teen’s school is not a place of pride, making them feel slightly hurt.

What you can do: In private, acknowledge how the comment made your teen feel, with a statement such as: “I can understand why that remark might sting, even if it wasn’t intended to hurt.” 

If your teen is receptive, you can suggest considering the positive intent behind the words, by saying, “Sometimes, people want to express support but they aren’t sure how. It seems like they were trying to say that your happiness is important, even if it came out wrong.” 

Next, empower your teen to articulate their own feelings in future, by roleplaying this scenario with suitable responses: “What about saying something like, ‘Actually, I feel proud of my school and believe it’s a great fit for me. I’m excited about the opportunities it offers and the things I’m learning there.'”

This encourages your teen to reframe the narrative positively, and provides them with constructive ways to respond to comments. It also helps them to practise standing up for their choices and valuing their own experiences, fostering a sense of pride and autonomy.

Scenario B: Your teen feels inferior after seeing posts on social media from friends in top schools, celebrating their academic achievements or exclusive school events. They begin to question their own worth and the opportunities that they have.

What you can do: Remind your child about the selective nature of social media, where people tend to highlight only the best parts of their lives. For better perspective, you can also introduce the idea that attending a top school comes with its own unique pressures and challenges. For instance, you could say, “While it’s natural to feel a bit envious of friends who post about their achievements, it’s important to remember that those experiences come with high expectations and stress. Not everything about their experience is as perfect as it appears online.”

At the same time, do emphasise the value of your teen’s current experience, with advice such as: “The most important thing is being in a school that’s the right fit for you, where you can thrive. Your school offers opportunities that are unique and valuable, and it’s all about making the most of them. How do you feel about this?”

If your teen expresses doubts about the suitability of their school, take their concerns seriously. You could say, “Let’s talk about what aspects you’re unhappy with. Is it the academic programmes, the social environment, or something else?” 

Encourage them to be specific about what they feel is lacking or could be improved. This not only validates their feelings but also helps in identifying actionable steps that can be taken to enhance their school experience. For example, if your teen says there aren’t enough extracurricular opportunities, you could say, “Let’s see if there are clubs or activities outside of school that we can look into.”

Guide Your Teen to Develop Strengths and Interests

What’s the best way for your teen to develop confidence, no matter which school they’re at? Find something that they’re interested in, which they can be good at. 

However, it’s not always easy to do this, and here are two scenarios that you might face with your teen.

Scenario A: Your teen feels pressured to identify a passion or talent, when they don’t have clear interest areas. This can be a source of stress and low self-esteem, especially when they see peers excelling in specific activities.

What you can do: Start by reassuring your teen that it’s perfectly normal not to have everything figured out. Encourage exploration with a supportive statement like, “It’s OK not to have one big passion right now. Life is about exploring and trying new things. What’s something you’ve always been curious about but haven’t had the chance to try?” Offer to help your teen explore these interests, whether it’s signing up for a class together, looking for local clubs or workshops, or simply dedicating time each week to explore different hobbies at home.

Scenario B: Your teen enjoys an activity and shows potential, yet they hesitate to join a competition or work on a more extensive project, possibly due to fear of failure or rejection. Additionally, they express that they simply enjoy the activity “for fun,” along with the worry that taking things further could destroy their love for the activity.

What you can do: First, validate your teen’s need for pure enjoyment, by saying, “It’s wonderful that you have so much fun with chess.” Then, gently introduce the idea that trying new things, like competitions or clubs, doesn’t have to diminish the fun. Instead, it can add a new dimension to their hobby. You could say, “Exploring competitions or clubs could introduce you to new friends and ideas, and there’s always something new to learn, which can be fun in its own way.”

You can also acknowledge your teen’s fears while offering a balanced view, “It’s normal to feel nervous about trying something new, especially when it comes to something you love. But remember, every great player started somewhere, and many of them continued because they found joy in improvement and the community around the game.”

To balance the need for fun with growth, suggest a trial period or a low-stakes way to participate in something new, by saying, “How about we find a casual club where the focus is on enjoyment and learning rather than competing? You don’t have to commit right away. Let’s just explore and see how it feels.”

Want to chat with other parents about secondary school life? Find a conversation to join on the KiasuParents forum!