How to Help Your Kid Through Bouts of Impostor Syndrome

by ParentCo. September 09, 2016

Usually it’s me but this time, it was my husband. I had to sit back and watch the carnage.

It all started because our daughter wanted to learn jazz. She had been playing piano for almost a decade but only classical music. Yes, she’s 12. The short version of the story is her three-year-old self wanted to be like her big brother but what started as sibling rivalry, turned into a love affair with music.

So, we found her a jazz piano teacher and let’s just say it wasn’t a great fit.

After listening to my husband complain for the umpteenth time about this new teacher, I replied, “If you don’t like it, you fix it. I don’t have the bandwidth right now.”

So he did.

He did his research online and found a music school instead of a music teacher. He looked at all the prerequisites. Yup. Looked at the calendar. Yup. Looked at the price and location. Yup. Yup.

He even did a quick check-in with me. He explained what he found, and I replied, “Sounds great!”

At the first drop-off, they only started to get a whiff that something was amiss when they strolled past the bar near the front entrance.

He had failed to notice that he signed her up for an adult class.

My 12-year-old, 4’7” daughter was asked to take a seat next to the 6’8” Chinese grad student eating a footlong sub. They exchanged smiles – his full of food; her’s strained. On her other side was a studious Latino male undergraduate rushing to finish a homework assignment.

To my daughter’s credit, or maybe because she was a shined deer in the headlights, she sat down at her keyboard and waved goodbye to her papa.

When my husband picked her up he tried to make jokes, and told me later that “it sorta worked,” but when she walked in and saw me, she burst into tears.

“I can’t do this! I don’t belong there.”

But she did belong there. She understood the teacher’s material. Even at 12 years old, she had all the credentials. The teacher welcomed her warmly and had no problem with the age discrepancy. He even approached her and told her that he had started taking jazz at age 12, too. “Well done,” he had said.

All of this went out the window because she was different. She was uncomfortable. She was completely intimidated. She had the most raging case of impostor complex I’d ever seen.

This wasn't surprising since feeling very different (race, gender, education, age) often triggers this complicated emotion. I was surprised, however, that it wasn’t reserved for us adults.

Amy Cuddy, author of the book "Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges," says, “It’s not simple stage fright or performance anxiety; rather, it’s the deep and sometimes paralyzing belief that we have been given something we didn’t earn and don’t deserve and that at some point we’ll be exposed.”

I wasn’t ready to let her quit. There's a difference between giving up and knowing when you’ve had enough. I'm okay with quitting, but we don’t give up just because things are hard.

I needed to help her puff out her chest and strut into that class every week. Well, okay – maybe that wouldn’t happen, but I did want to help her look past her physical differences and embrace her talent.

Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, the researcher who coined the phrase "impostor complex," said, “If I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”

I've been there. You've been there. Famous people have been there:

Maya Angelou: "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, 'Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'"

Kate Winslet: " wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.”

We needed to be careful how we boosted her confidence. We did not want to sound insincere like SNL’s Stuart Smalley and dole out empty praise, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.”

The key, according to a 2011 research review, is to address the specific worry areas such as “…worries about whether they’re respected, whether their teachers think they’re dumb, whether they belong – and precisely, briefly, without stigmatizing them or singling them out, give them messages that can remove those barriers,” Dr. David Scott Yeager says, who co-authored the study with Gregory Walton.

Their work with middle and high school students has been extremely successful in increasing grades, lowering drop-out rates, and improving mental well-being for as long as three years.

So our family talked about this a lot. We talked too much, according to my daughter. However, we don’t regret it, and I secretly doubt she does either.

We reiterated that she deserved to be in this class. She had the same base as everyone else – nobody else in the class knew jazz, either. And when she put in extra practice work until she was sure she wouldn’t “embarrass herself,” we reminded her of her work ethic and ability to go toe-to-toe with those "grown-ups."

But in the end, never doubt the importance of a teacher, boss, or leader. My daughter said, “I still have self doubt, but the teacher helped me the most.”

Joyce Roché, the author of Empress Has No Clothes, says, “Leaders need to understand important triggers of impostor feelings – race, class, gender, education, sexual orientation are some big ones. If you are not creating a culture that values the authentic self, you are not going to get it.”

Indeed. Now when she walks into the classroom, instead of only seeing tall, intimidating grown-ups, she sees one warm and welcoming teacher.

And that is what has made all the difference.



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