How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

The teen years can be filled with self-doubt, self-consciousness, and awkwardness. The good news is that when it comes to building confidence in teens, parents can play an active role. First, it helps to understand this subtle distinction: Self-confidence is generally defined as how you feel about your abilities, whereas self-esteem is how you feel about yourself.

Encouragement For Teens: Help Build Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is what allows teenagers to face and overcome hardships, challenges, and disappointments, something we all want our teens to be able to do. Based on my work with teens and their families, here are four proven strategies parents can use to help build self-confidence in their teen.

Strategy #1: Focus on Strengths

Highlight the positive behaviors you want to see more of. This doesn’t necessarily mean praising the tangible, measurable outcome (such as an A on a test, or scoring the winning goal), but rather the process your teen engaged in to get the end result.

What this sounds like from you: “I know how much time and energy you put into that project. You really worked hard; good job!” You are reinforcing the effort of hard work, not just the result. This helps your teen want to put the effort in again.

Strategy #2: Ask Targeted Questions

Generic questions lead to generic responses. When you ask a teen, “How was your day?” the typical response will be, “It was fine.” Instead, try using targeted questions to explore specific aspects of their day that relate to confidence. Here’s an example of how that might play out:

Parent: “How did science go today? Mr. Johnson talked about a new science project you are working on at open house.”

Parent: “Just okay? What was not great about it?”

Teen: “For starters, our group didn’t even understand the instructions. Mr. Johnson can be so confusing sometimes.”

Parent: “Sounds frustrating. How did you approach the problem?”

Teen: “Well, I was feeling annoyed because no one in the group cared that we didn’t know what to do. I wanted to start the project and not get behind.”

Parent: “So what did you do?”

Teen: “Since no one else was helping, I got Mr. Johnson’s attention and explained we were confused by the instructions and didn’t know where to start.”

Parent: “Sounds like you did a good job of communicating the needs of your group and taking initiative.”

In this seemingly minor exchange, the parent acknowledges the teen’s leadership, problem-solving and use of assertive communication, all of which relate to self-confidence.

Strategy #3: Encourage Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities create opportunities for your teen to acquire leadership skills, social skills, time management skills, and resilience, helping them to overcome challenging problems. For example, playing a sport not only promotes the value of physical health, but also reinforces teamwork, healthy competition, and mentorship, all of which contribute to building confidence.

Strategy #4: Lead by Example

Teens are very perceptive to the words and actions of their parents, even if they don’t show it. The way you respond (verbally and nonverbally) to uncertainty, stress, competition, and challenging situations shapes their future response. The key aspect to modeling behavior is consistency. When you remain confident in the face of adversity, time and again, it models for your teen how to deal with similar situations in their own life.

Ultimately, the most important action you can take as a parent is to stay curious and involved in your teen’s life. By taking intentional steps to identify, instill, and strengthen their confidence, you are showing your teen how much you care.

Megan Vossler is a licensed clinical social worker in California who provides therapy to teens and families dealing with depression, anxiety, self-esteem and self-confidence issues, among other issues.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Improv is an excellent tool to support youth and adults to gain confidence, build social skills, practice life skills, and expand social emotional communication skills – all while having fun. Lacy is an award-winning teacher and program director who has designed a number of programs that serve neurodivergent youth/adults and at-risk youth.

Information about these programs, the general benefits of adaptive improv, and a program video can be found below.

Lacy regularly teaches classes, workshops, and trainings for other professionals. If you’re interested in hosting a workshop or class within your organization for students or professionals, please get in touch! Please also feel free to check out Lacy’s training specific website.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Lacy founded Building Connections, a specialized and adaptive improv program through the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Tx in 2012. She directed that program and served as the lead teacher for seven years before moving out of Austin. During her time there, she developed all of the programs, wrote the curriculum, supervised and trained all staff, managed all administrative tasks, and served as the lead teacher. Programs included:

-Improv programming for autistic and neurodivergent youth and adults

-Weekly classes for homeless youth in a local shelter

-Improv programming & workshops for youth with mental health issues

-Workshops for foster youth in residential care

-Classes for LGBTQIA+ youth in a local drop-in center

-Workshops for youth re-integrating into the community after incarceration

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Lacy also co-founded and co-directs Camp Yes And in Indiana through Indiana University, which utilizes her Connect Improv Curriculum as a guidepost.

Camp Yes And is a unique program that has a dual purpose. It serves as a training program for helping/ arts professionals, and is also a summer camp for autistic teens.

In the morning, Lacy teaches the professionals how to integrate improv pedagogy and exercises into their work with neurodivergent youth in order to improve social emotional communication skills. Professionals are up on their feet, laughing, and learning flexible, practical, and effective strategies for engaging students in social, emotional, and academic learning.

In the afternoon, autistic teens join for camp, and the professionals get to put their new learning directly into action, while campers strengthen communication and social skills, increase flexibility and spontaneity, support the integration of sensory information, and build relationships.

Test Your Resource For High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome

T eachers, parents and partners come to me asking my help to understand the behavior of someone with Aspergers. Usually they’re frustrated by behavior of some kind that’s perceived as resistance to what seems to be needs and expectations that are “normal,” or neurotypical. The neurotypical teacher, parent or partner wants to have things go more smoothly.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

In turn, the individuals with Aspergers (neurodiverse) are often frustrated by the expectations they face which seems to suggest a basic lack of understanding of their needs. The assumption is that if those who are neurotypical “got it,” expectations would be more realistic and problems such as difficulty transitioning, social anxiety and sensory issues would be taken into account. They may feel that their meltdowns are a direct result of their environment.

I find myself in the role of translator of the perspective of the neurodiverse individual to the neurotypical parent, teacher or partner, and the translator of the perspective of the neurotypical to those who are neurodiverse. In my role as translator, I can be free of judgments. I’m simply trying to help people understand each other.

Many neurotypicals are grateful to understand a neurodiverse perspective. However, I’ve also been told that clarifying the situation from the neurodiverse point of view is simply making an excuse for the neurodiverse person’s behavior. I’m excusing rather than explaining. I’m not doing what’s wanted, which is to get the neurodiverse individual to stop acting neurodiverse and start acting neurotypical.

The idea that the neurodiverse perspective is only an excuse rejects the reality of the needs of the neurodiverse person. It’s saying that these needs aren’t real but represent oppositionalism, avoidance, an attitude problem, or even selfishness.

For example, the situation might be that a neurodiverse teenager wasn’t doing a chore at home, like taking out the garbage on the night when it’s picked up. I might explain that the neurodiverse teen missed the implied expectation of what’s wanted. The mother had asked the neurodiverse teen to take out the garbage once but did not specify that the teen was expected to take out the garbage every week. He needed a direct, clear instruction.

The mother might tell me that her neurodiverse teen should understand that if the garbage was there, the chore of taking it out needed doing. When I explain that the directions need to be explicit, “I want you to take out the garbage every Thursday night,” the parent insists the teen was simply avoiding his chores. She told the teen that he was being selfish and that she expected more thoughtfulness.

“Thoughtfulness” sounds meaningful to the parent, but not to the teen. A neurodiverse teen who’s very literal might think that “thoughtfulness” means he was supposed to be full of thoughts.

Because neurotypicals say things like “be thoughtful” or “the garbage is just sitting there,” neurodiverse individuals can get frustrated that neurotypicals often don’t say what they mean. A spouse might say, “It’s hard for me to carry this,” without saying, “I want you to carry this for me,” and then express frustration that the neurodiverse person isn’t responsible.

“Being responsible” might mean “offer to help” to the neurotypical– although this still doesn’t make it clear when to offer to help, or with what, and the neurodiverse person doesn’t feel confident in interpreting with what exactly to offer to help. They worry that boundaries will be crossed if they misinterpret.

This conflict over understanding can happen if the neurodiverse person has sensory issues that make a task much more problematic than it might seem. The teen might refuse to wash the dishes, not out of laziness, but because the feeling of soapy water might be painful and overwhelming, or the noise level in the kitchen might be so overstimulating that it triggers fight-or-flight response. The teen might be too upset to explain his problem, not have the words to explain, or feel the parent “should” understand the sensory issues. The mom might feel angry that she cleaned up, made dinner, etc., and perceive the teen doesn’t appreciate her or want to help.

Mindblindness (not understanding the other’s thinking) can go in both directions, even though there’s mutual caring and love.

The teen might actually want very much to please his mom but feel defeated because even though he loves her, he can’t seem to do things right. The mom loves her son and is trying her best. The problem is that they’re not communicating in the other’s language.

There are also problems when there’s competing needs that are urgent. Parents know that transitions are often problematic for those who are neurodiverse, but sometimes there’s a need for a rapid unexpected transition, like going out to do an unexpected errand or picking someone up who’s not feeling well. The need is a reasonable one, but it’s unlikely that a neurodiverse person will suddenly stop having trouble with flexibility and transitions.

It can help to present the need as a request rather than a demand but transitioning flexibly and quickly might still be too difficult. Sometimes there’s just not a great answer, but it’s not because someone is holding out or purposefully defiant.

Life and relationships with someone from a different neurotype can be more successful and rewarding if neurodivergent perspectives and needs aren’t perceived as obstinate or manipulative. So, there’s a conversation as opposed to an argument or meltdown.

No one in the relationship intends to be unreasonable. Getting past the communication barrier might first fall on the neurotypical to be clear and listen to the response of the neurodiverse person; experiencing respect and acceptance rather than blame can make it less tense and easier for the neurodiverse person to communicate as well.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Having a healthy level of confidence and self-esteem can help you achieve greater success in your professional and personal life. And while there are plenty of ways to build confidence, if you don’t believe you’re worth the effort, it won’t really matter.

This is when having a healthy sense of self-esteem comes into play.

There are no two ways about it, having a healthy level confidence and self-esteem is directly attributed to living a more fulfilling life. But here’s something extremely important to remember: the actions of confidence come first, then the feelings.

Read that a few more times and let it sink in.

6 Ways to build confidence & self esteem

1. Kick Self-Criticism in the face

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

One of the ways to build confidence and self-esteem is to kick your inner critic in the teeth!

One of the most important ways to build confidence and self-esteem is to stop paying attention to all the horseshit your mind tells you.

In order to grow as a person and build confidence, all of that negative self-talk has to be ignored. Yes, I said ignored. Not stopped. If you could make it stop you would’ve by now. What you need to do is build the skill of learning to do what matters in spite of the negative self-talk

The next time you have a self-critical thought, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is it kind?
  2. Is it true?
  3. Is it helpful?

There is a very good chance that the answer to these questions will be no. As you continue to answer no over and over again, you may just start to consider that you are something other, something more, than what you originally thought.

2. Get. shit. done.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Fact: Getting shit done on the regular does wonders for your confidence and self-esteem!

Confidence is built on accomplishment. It doesn’t matter how small or how big – just get it done. Create mini to-do lists each day and mark them off as you go. The more productive and effective you are, the more confident you’ll feel. Set mini goals each day and monitor your progress. Chances are if you’re knocking out your daily goals, you will be doing the same on the bigger picture goals too.

So, if you’re looking for ways to build confidence and self-esteem, get shit done.

3. Keep a Journal – no, not that kind

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

If you don’t track and record your accomplishments, how will you remember how you achieved them?

I’m not talking “Dear Diary.” I’m talking monitoring, tracking, and recording your progress. Write down your victories and what you did to achieve them. What got in the way? How did you overcome it? What would you do differently if you could do it again?

Writing down successes helps you feel them and remember them better.

The successes could be small, “I kept my cool when my daughter came home at 2 AM.” Or big, “I beat out five other people to get that promotion!”

Write these down every day and whenever you need a confidence boost, re-read what you’ve written.

4. Get off the couch

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

If you want to feel for confident you need to FEEL more confident. So exercise!

Exercise isn’t just great for your overall health and well-being, it helps memory retention, improves focus, reduces stress and even prevents depression. If you feel more sharp and focused, not to mention stronger and more agile, you will most definitely feel more confident as you make your way through you day.

So get off your ass and get moving. Even if it’s only for a walk around the block. Something, anything is better than nothing. Plus, it’s harder to be anxious or nervous if you don’t have a lot of excess energy to spare. 😉

5. Keep Your word

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

People respect others who do what they say they’re going to do.

People respect others who say they’re going to do something and do it. So if you agree to do something, do it – no matter what. If you don’t follow through, you learn not to trust yourself and lose faith in your ability to get results – and so will others.

Empower yourself by always keeping your commitments, not just to yourself but to others.

6. Give less fucks about What Others Think

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Remember: those who matter don’t mind and those mind don’t matter. So you do you and forget everyone else.

Obviously this is easier said than done. But there will always be critics and naysayers no matter where you go and what you do. Always. But here’s the reality: those matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter. Also, most people are wrong about most things. Yes, you read that right. So if you want to build confidence and self-esteem you need to stop giving a shit what the wrong people think.

Life is hard enough as it is. Don’t let it be harder than it has to be. If you feel like you’ve done everything you can to build confidence and self-esteem and it’s just not working, find an awesome therapist or coach you like and trust to help. They can help you learn to identify unhelpful thought and behavior patterns as well as offer tools for managing them more effectively.

James Killian, LPC is the Principal Therapist & Owner of Arcadian Counseling in New Haven, CT where they specialize in helping over-thinkers, high achievers, and perfectionists reduce stress, increase fulfillment and enhance performance so they can move From Surviving To Thriving.

The transition to adulthood is a challenge for any young person in today’s competitive society, but even more so for young adults who think, process, and interact with the world in ways that are outside the box.

The result? Often, it’s a string of unsuccessful attempts to move forward. Struggling with classes, unemployed or in unfulfilling jobs, anxiety climbs and confidence fades. Feelings of isolation and loneliness increase. Parents are frustrated with their young person disappearing into endless hours of gaming or online activities. But the truth is, neurodivergent teens and young adults know the world is waiting. What looks like resistance or laziness is actually anxiety.

Transition to Adulthood Coaching helps teens and young adults learn to value and harness their own unique talents and abilities.

Together with an expert coach, your teen or young adult creates a plan to move forward in multiple areas of life. A joyful & independent life includes not only handling daily responsibilities, but also building relationships and having a sense of meaning or purpose.

Some of the areas of life we cover include:

Career. What do you want to be when you grow up is a fun question at five, but often a terrifying one as a teenager or young adult. Should you attend college or go straight into the workforce? How do you get and keep a job? Many individuals pair individual coaching with participation in our Adulting 101 Group , which includes a focus on career development.

Executive Function. Executive Function (EF) challenges are common for neurodivergent people. These often show up as trouble getting started, difficulty staying focused and completing work, as well as challenges with planning and time management. We focus on strategies to maximize EF skills.

Understanding Neurodivergence. Understanding neurodivergence and how to self-advocate is critical for long-term success. Masking (hiding neurodivergent traits to fit in) is exhausting and damaging. Instead, we focus on being the best version of ourselves.

People. We focus on understanding what it takes to build and maintain friendships, learning how to navigate anxiety in social situations, and improving communication with family members.

Purpose. A sense of purpose comes from being connected with things greater than one’s self. For some people, this comes through creative or intellectual pursuits such as art, writing, or a focus on a specific interest. For others, a sense of meaning comes from making the world a better place. We work together to build meaningful activities into daily life.

Sensory Sensitivities. Neurodivergent people react to sensory stimuli differently than neurotypical people. Loud noises may feel unbearable. Sensitivity to texture or taste may result in eating a limited range of foods. Difficulty with temperature regulation can make a hot room or the entire season of summer miserable. We talk about why sensory sensitivities exist and how to navigate them.

The Nuts and Bolts of Independent Living. Other goals we often work on include the practical details of life. These can include hygiene (showers & brushing teeth are common challenges), handling household responsibilities, managing money, transit options, making doctor’s appointments, and the other routine things we all need to do in life.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Clara, a 5th grader, twisted a Rubik’s Cube in my counseling office.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “I never get to play basketball at recess. The boys won’t pass the ball to me. Today, Dylan said it’s because I suck and he doesn’t want to lose. I called him a jerk and walked away.”

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

“If you had told him how you really felt, what would you have said?” I asked.

Clara paused. “I would have said that I’m really good at basketball, because it’s true,” she said. “I would have told him that if he wants to win, he should pass the ball to me. And if he doesn’t want me around, he can play something else.”

She might have had an easier time asserting herself when she was younger.

As girls get closer to adolescence, their confidence takes a hit.

Research backs this up. Claire Shipman, author of The Confidence Code for Girls, notes that boys and girls tend to start out with the same confidence level, but “after age 8, girls go straight down,” dropping 30 percent between ages 8 and 14. “Boys experience a bit of bumpiness in puberty, but girls drop well below them and never get back up to the confidence level of men,” she explains.

The tween phase poses unique challenges, but it also presents an opportunity to build confidence in girls. Some kids are still playing make-believe while others are listing their crushes. Although tweens are becoming more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, they’re not yet as hindered by the idea of an invisible audience judging them.

“I don’t want to generalize an age group completely, but on balance they’re less self-conscious than adolescents,” says Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is. “There’s more playfulness and more risk-taking, which are great ingredients for creating confidence.”

Here are four ways you can capitalize on those strengths to counteract the confidence slump.

4 Ways to Build Confidence in Your Teenage Daughter

1. Encourage small risks and expand your notion of confidence.

Building confidence in girls means making space for risk-taking, struggle, and failure. Shipman recently prodded her 12-year-old daughter to try debate. “She’s athletic, and sports are more in her comfort zone, but I thought it would be useful for her to stretch,” she explains. “There were times when she said, ‘I’m never going to forgive you; this is the worst thing ever.’ I thought she’d pass out during the first debate, but the second debate went all right. By the third round, it was, ‘I’m not bad at this; I can do this.’”

Some tween girls are more motivated to take risks if they’re advocating for a cause, whether it’s animal rights or gun control. A shift in emphasis from “me” to “we”—when she feels like she’s part of something bigger—can also put personal worries in perspective and give her a sense of purpose.

Think beyond traditional notions of confidence too, Simmons says: “Your child can be confident when she has to walk into a room where she doesn’t know anybody, or when she’s doing a science project, or when she’s expressing her inner dork.” A girl who’s willing to be silly around her friends is confident because she’s not worrying about what others think.

It’s not the big bungee-jumping moments, it’s the day-to-day challenges, Simmons notes. “Building confidence in girls is like weight-lifting. You start light and gradually increase your challenge.”

2. Be a role model.

Verbalize when you’re taking on a challenge with an uncertain outcome. Seeing you go through a similar experience paves the way for building confidence in girls. “Narrate your thought process in a way that models calm and self-compassion rather than self-criticism,” Simmons explains.

Say, “I had to present something in a meeting today, and I was nervous and sweating. I took a deep breath and told myself I’d do my best, and it went pretty well.”

3. Teach her to express vulnerability, but know when she needs limits.

Encourage your daughter to take emotional risks and build friendships based on honest communication. “Help her understand how powerful it is to express how you’re feeling in a way that’s vulnerable and not aggressive,” Shipman says.

Similarly, Simmons advises parents to teach their daughters how to manage painful moments, such as not getting invited to a party. Social media can amplify disappointments. Building confidence in girls means recognizing these moments. “She won’t magically be the unicorn who doesn’t feel left out,” Simmons says. If your daughter knows she hasn’t been invited to a sleepover, talk to her about her options.

“She could put her phone away for chunks of time, or turn off Snapchat or Instagram for the weekend,” Shipman says. Parents can’t make social media go away, but they can set limits to try to inoculate tweens from a constant focus on who’s doing what.

4. Arm her with mantras and other strategies.

Your daughter can be her own coach, Shipman says. “She can come up with boosterisms, such as ‘I’ve got this.’” Or she can use visual imagery to picture achieving her goal that will build her confidence.

“The most important thing as a parent is that you can’t go to pieces when she fails,” she adds. “You have to convey this is a normal part of life and help her change the channel. Don’t go into analysis when she’s in the throes of it.”

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

When you process the setback, underscore that building confidence is about more than taking on a challenge—it’s also how you regroup when things don’t go your way.

Press reviews for: The Autism and Neurodiversity Self Advocacy Handbook

Amanda Webster, Ph.D. Associate Professor, University of Wollongong and author of Life on the Autism Spectrum.

The ability and opportunity to self-advocate for themselves has been a basic right that has often been denied to many autistic and neurodivergent people. Although these sentiments have begun to shift, there is still relatively little research or information that provides autistic or neurodivergent people or family members with specific guidance for how they can take steps to self-advocate in different contexts. The Autism and Neurodiversity Self Advocacy Handbook goes a long way to fulfilling this gap. The use of practical cases and examples and clear points would be very useful to both autistic and neurodivergent people as well as the professionals and family who work with them. In addition, this book describes self-advocacy in areas of life that have not often been discussed. Particular highlights include chapters on advocacy in old age, social media and relationships. This book makes a significant contribution to current knowledge and is a must have for autistic and neurodivergent teens and adults, and for anyone who supports them.

Ainslie Robinson, Working in Partnership Officer/Research Assistant (Autistic Person) and Tom Tutton, Executive Manager, Aspect Practice both at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)

Barb Cook and Yenn Purkis are respected advocates who write in an accessible way. This book could be useful for people wishing to become an advocate. We thought the book was most illuminating when the authors share their insights on foundational issues in self-advocacy such as self-awareness, self- determination and awareness of rights. The book has a broad scope and the authors helpfully consider a range of environments such as schools, workplaces or relationships.

How to build confidence as a neurodivergent teen

Discover how to get your happy teen back! Learn more about our teen coaching program.

Parents will naturally want to help their teenagers make sensible choices for the next stages of their life, such as studies and careers. However, it’s also critical to ensure teens develop a healthy level of self-confidence so they understand the value of hard work, working towards goals, and creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Confident teens will understand that the effort they put in, combined with positive thinking will help them reach their goals, whatever they may be. Here are five activities you can use to help your teen develop the confidence they need to lead a happy, productive life.

1. Compliments Journal

Provide your teen with a journal and tell them they are to write down at least three things they like about themselves.

This exercise is aimed at helping young kids learn to love themselves and that the approval of others is not a guide to their self-worth. When teens can love themselves, it can significantly improve their self-confidence.

2. Self-Confidence Building Worksheet

A self-confidence-building exercise is a helpful tool a teen can use to explore their feelings. They can write down examples of different situations where they felt self-confident and then answer a series of questions about it, such as:

  • How did you feel physically – describe the sensations and feelings you felt in your body?
  • What is your self-talk about the situation, or what do you tell yourself?
  • What did you do as a result?

Another aspect they can add to the exercise is to explore a situation where they didn’t feel confident.

  • What are some positive statements they could tell themselves to remind themselves of their self-worth?
  • What could I have done that would make me feel differently about the situation?
  • What could I do differently if confronted with the same problem?

3. Book of Mistakes

A book where teens record their mistakes can help reinforce the lessons learned during a situation and explore options for turning the errors into a success.

Teens should list the most common mistakes they have made in the past, why they might have failed, and what they will do differently next time.

4. Gratitude Diary

Feeling grateful, even for the little things, can do wonders for turning negative self-talk into positive feedback. Your teen should write down at least two things for which they are grateful to start, and then gradually increase the number of items over the coming weeks.

At the end of the week, your teen can compare their collection of notes to see how their mindset may have changed. This exercise is excellent for giving teens the confidence to improve relationships and boost their perceived level of self-worth.

5. Changing Negative Self-Talk into Positive Self Talk

Persistent self-criticism and negative self-talk can lead to low self-esteem. Teenagers can learn to change their negative thought patterns into more positive ones using the following three-step exercise.

The first step is to write down their negative thoughts. Next, they should explain the thought process at length, any feelings that have arisen because of it, and a few of the things they think might create some resistance to the negative thought.

In the third stage, parents work with the teenagers in discussing some of the different choices they have in replacing the negative thoughts with more positive versions.


The above are just a few simple habits and exercises you can teach your teenager that has been shown to help develop self-confidence as they grow towards becoming independent successful adults.

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