Core Life Skill: Self-assessment

What Is It?

Self-assessment is the ability to assess your current mental, physical and emotional state, and then, based on this assessment, decide on the best course of action you need to take to make sure your needs in these three areas are met both now and in the longer-term.

Why Is It Important?

Self-assessment is important because it’s the key to understanding what you require from life to fulfill your emotional, physical and mental needs, and unless these needs are fulfilled, it’s unlikely that you’ll be happy. This may seem like a very obvious skill, and one that everyone automatically develops, but actually the conscious and critical self-assessment required to help you identify not just your immediate needs, but also your longer term ones, is more difficult that it seems, and it’s something that needs to be specifically learned. This is because it often requires that you over-ride your subconscious impulses and gut reactions in order to dig deep enough into your own internal state to identify your true needs at any particular moment in time. It then takes additional learning to develop the skills which will allow you to then work out a plan to ensure these needs are actually met.

Help Your Child Work Out How To Help ThemselvesThe ability to self-assess, and then to act on the identified needs, is an essential skill for children to develop if they are to grow up into self-sufficient and happy adults, but our own need to protect the children in our lives often means that we often end up stunting this ability, leading to children who develop into adults that, all too often, turn to external forces to try to fulfill their needs. This results in the over-dependence on other people (leading to a failure to identify and break free from inappropriate, disrespectful, coercive or abusive relationships) and an increased likelihood of developing addictions to alcohol, drugs, self-harm, gambling and so on. In contrast, children who are encouraged to develop good self-assessment skills will learn how to take control of their own lives and take positive actions to identify and meet their own needs. This means that they are much less likely to become dependent on others (meaning they’re much less likely to become involved in bad personal relationships, and more likely to be able to break free of them if they do) or become addicted to any of life’s many temptations and pitfalls.

In the short-term, good self-assessment skills can also act to make children more or less immune to bullying in all its forms. This is because it makes children able to objectively assess what a would-be bully is saying, and see it for what it really is (an attempt to control them) rather than a self-evident truth about them, their abilities or their character. This is particularly relevant to the modern world where the existence of cyber-bullying makes it much harder for a child to escape such situations by physically avoiding being in the same space as those who seek to bully them. As a result, it’s more important than ever that we ensure our kids have the skills required to avoid giving bullies that come after them, in any form, any level of control over their physical, emotional or mental well-being, and part of that skill set is the ability to self-assess.

What age should your child start developing it?

Self-assessment is a skill that children can be encouraged to start developing almost as soon as they become able to make their needs known to you, but it will probably be about the time that your child starts walking that the earliest opportunities arise for you to teach them about self-assessment. Ideally, by the age of about seven, your child should have a good ability to self-assess, allowing them to identify their own basic physical, emotional and mental needs, to be able to work out how best to take positive steps to make sure they are met, and to be able to verbalise their needs to others. However, this ability will continue to develop as your child grows, allowing them to deal with more complex needs, especially emotional ones, and it will not be until their late teens at the earliest that it finally becomes fully developed. However, without your active encouragement, you may find that your child never develops this important core life skill, leading to unhappiness and a failure to reach their full potential in their adult life

How can you encourage your child to develop and enhance this skill?

There is a very simple strategy for encouraging your child to develop good self-assessment skills, and this is it: When anything happens to your child, whether physical, emotional or mental, resist the urge to rush in and ‘rescue’ them, to leap to their defense, or to solve the situation for them. Instead, before you do anything, first ask them a question which will require them to self-assess before they can answer you. The exact question will vary from situation to situation, but they are ones like ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘Do you need some help?’ The key here is that the questions are neutral, rather than negative (so ‘Are you alright?” rather than ‘What’s wrong?’), and open-ended. This encourages your child to focus on how they actually feel rather than simply reflecting how you, as their parent, think they should be feeling in response to what it happening to them at that moment in time. If your child decides that they are ok, or that they don’t need any help, then that’s your cue to stay out of the situation. Any other action would violate the important physical, emotional and mental boundaries which develop along side good self-assessment skills.

If your child decides that they aren’t okay, or that they need some help, then you still need to resist rushing to their aid. Instead, it’s time to ask a follow-up question which will help them think about and identify what they need at that moment in time, and then to verbalise it back to you. These can be questions such as ‘What can I do to help you feel better?’ or ‘What can I do to help you sort things out?’  Once they have explained what they need, then you can offer to help them achieve it, and only it, rather than whatever else you think they might need. This is because it’s important that you help them work out how to meet the need they’ve identified, even if you think they’re wrong, or if you know from past experience that it won’t actually help. The point to keep in mind here is that they cannot fully learn how to meet their own emotional, physical and mental needs without making a few mistakes here and there, and indeed, mistakes are often life’s best teachers, so it’s better to make them when we’re young and the consequences aren’t so big or important. In addition, the help you provide to help them meet their needs has to be offered in such a way that it encourages them to solve the issue they are having for themselves rather than having you solve it for them. This is a tricky balancing act, and it will take you a few times to get it right, but it’s well worth the effort.

After you’ve helped them meet the identified need, you need to encourage them to repeat the initial self-assessment to see if it has actually made them feel better. Again, this is done by asking a question, such as ‘Do you feel better now?’, ‘Has that helped?’ or ‘Can you carry on on your own now?’. Again, these questions should be neutral and not negative. If they feel that they’re okay, then let them go. If they don’t, then ask them what else you can do to help them help themselves. Through this process they’ll not only learn to identify their own inner state and requirements, they’ll also learn how best to take the appropriate actions to ensure they’re met.

Of course, it’s very important that while you’re working through this strategy with your child that you leave your own emotions out of it as much as possible. Your questions and responses need to be calm and caring, even if inside you’re seething at some slight, injustice or humiliation that your child has just had to endure. This is because your child needs to learn that self-assessment is something that will work best if it’s done from a position of mental calmness and clarity and not emotional turmoil, and by keeping calm yourself, you’ll encourage them to stay calm too, both when they’re young and with you, and when they’re older and they’re not.

So what does this strategy look like in action? Well, let’s start with a very common situation: Your child is a toddler who’s eager to walk, but is still a little unsteady on their feet. They’re running in the park and trip over, landing, arms flailing, flat on their stomach with an audible thud. Every parent around you winces or gasps as your insides lurch. Your first urge is to run over, scoop them up and give them a big hug, because surely they’re feeling hurt and distressed. The trouble here is that this is your assessment of the situation and not theirs. If you rush in and scoop them up, then they’ll infer that something bad happened, even if that’s not how they actually feel, and they’ll learn to respond accordingly by crying out for you next time they fall over while they wait for you to rush in and comfort them. In short, they’ll quickly become dependent on cues from you to understand how they should be feeling and on your help to deal with any situation where they fall over, which is not beneficial to their development or their independence. This can quickly descend into learned helplessness, where your child learns that it’s not their responsibility to meet their needs, and this leads to the type of child who responds with helpless to situations which they should be able to easily deal with. This was brought home to me the other day when I saw a seven-year old in my local park sitting on a bench repeatedly yelling ‘Can someone put my shoe back on for me?’ rather than simply putting it back on himself!

So, what’s the alternative way to deal with the situation which will encourage them to develop their self-assessment skills? Let’s rewind and start again. Your child falls flat on their face. This time you resist the urge to rush over to them, but you still want them to know that you’re there for them if they need you, so you call out ‘Are you okay?’ This lets them know you’re concerned for them, but it also causes them to reflect inwardly as to whether they are actually okay or not, rather than simply feeding off your own response and worries. Nine times out of ten, they’ll decide that they are just fine, so they answer ‘yes’, clamber to their feet and carry on running as before. This time, they’ve learned that falling over is okay, and as long as they’re not hurt, then it’s not a big deal. In short, they’ve learned to assess their own needs rather than relying on your perception of the situation, and this will set them on a path that will avoid learned helplessness and be much more likely to lead to success.

Of course, there will be times when they say they’re not okay, and this is where you need to ask a follow-up question to encourage them to identify what help they need from you. This might be a hand to get up, a comforting hug, a kiss on a scratch or scrape, or help wiping the dirt from their hands and their clothes. Whatever it is, they’ll have learned to identify what they need to resolve the situation and make themselves feel better, rather than relying on you to make this decision for them, and again this will be hugely beneficial for the happiness of their future selves.

The same basic approach can also be applied to inter-personal conflicts. For example, your child comes home from school angry at something. You can start by asking the opening question:

‘Are you okay?’

If they’re ready to talk about it, they will, if not you need to give them time to process whatever they’re feeling and you can try asking them again later. In this scenario, we’ll imagine that they’re ready to talk, and they say:

‘No. I’m really angry at Mike!’

You know Mike is their best friend and this is unusual, so you’re next step is to ask a follow-up question that will help them explore exactly what they’re feeling and whether it’s really directed at Mike or elsewhere. So you might say something like:

‘Oh, no. You and Mike usually get on so well. What happened?’

Here you’re reflecting and acknowledging what they’re feeling before encouraging them to remember that they’re usually friends with Mike and to explore why exactly they’re feel they’re mad at him. You might get a response like this:

‘Cos Mike got into the football team and I didn’t!’

Here, it’s tempting to switch into rescuer mode and come out swinging with something like ‘Well, the coach clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re much more talented that Mike. Do you want me to have a word with him?’ That does your child no good as it just encourages them to look to you to solve their problems. Instead, try:

‘Oh, you must be disappointed, but is it Mike’s fault he got on to the team and you didn’t?’

This should result in a response of:


And you can follow it up with:

‘Why do you think you didn’t make the team?’

From here, you can take their response and help them decide what they can do to have a better chance of getting onto the team next time round, whether that’s going and speaking to the coach to find out what they can do to improve their chances (and I mean your child speaking to their coach, not you!) , attending more practices, or working on their fitness. The take home point here is that you’ve let your child work out for themselves that they’re not really angry at Mike, but rather they’re angry at the fact that they didn’t make the team. Mike was just a handy scapegoat to blame it on, and it’s only once they can see past this that you can help them work out a solution.

The approach also works for emotional issues. For example, your teenage child comes back from a date in floods of tears, suggesting it hasn’t gone well. It’s clear that they’re not okay, so asking if they are isn’t a good opening gambit. Instead, try ‘What happened?’ Again, if they’re not ready to tell you, then don’t push it, simply leave it until later. If they are, then you can work through the strategy as before, remembering to stay calm and to avoid bringing your own emotions into the situation – which will undoubtedly be very difficult when seeing your child crying their eyes out, but it will pay dividends in the future if you can, so it’s important to try to do this as much as possible. In addition, remember that it’s your job to help them to come up with a solution based on their own needs, not to leap in and provide one for them. Again, this is easier said than done.

Now, that’s just three situations, but there are many others where it’s best to apply the same strategy. This can be when they are hungry and are in need of food (they need to learn to identify this and tell you that this is what’s going on rather than just getting angry or snarky), when they’re thirsty, when they’re tired, when another child tries to steal a toy they’re playing with, when they don’t get their own way, when someone calls them a name, when someone makes fun of them, when a teacher treats them unfairly, when another child no longer wants to be friends with them, when their first girlfriend/boyfriend breaks up with them, and so on. In fact, the situations are endless, and in all cases encouraging your child to self-assess so that they can identify their own needs and then verbalise what they need from you (or others) to help them solve the situation for themselves will add to their independence and so their likelihood of growing into a happy and successful adult. And, the more often you do it, the more deeply it’ll become embedded into them until it becomes a reflexive response to any difficult, awkward, or emotionally difficult situation they may encounter in their lives. After all, much as you might like to, you cannot protect your child from everything, so instead, it’s better to equip them with the skills to be able to cope with all the unpleasant things that life has to throw at them.

When you first start implementing this strategy, it may make you very uncomfortable because you may feel that you are going against your parental instincts, and societal pressures, to protect your child no matter what, but it’s really important to resist the urge to act without asking your child whether they wish you to step in, and how they’d like you to help them help themselves. This is because leaping straight in will teach your child that other people, rather than themselves, are the gate-keepers both to their emotions, and to their mental, physical and emotional well-being, and that situation opens them up to unhappiness in later life (since they are the only person who can truly address these needs). It also makes them much more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by friends, colleagues and strangers, ending up in physically and/or mentally abusive relationships, becoming addicted to things like drugs and alcohol, developing eating disorders and self-harming. This means that resisting your instincts and societal pressures, while it might be hard, is by far the better option for your child both now and in the future because it will help develop their independence and give them a level of internal protection against such things.

Of course, when you’re putting this strategy into practice, you’ll also need to be prepared for reactions from other parents (or indeed grandparents, aunts, uncles and so on) who may well feel that you’re not doing your job properly. The best thing to do is to remember that you are the parent and they aren’t, and simply ignore them, but if you feel that for whatever reason you can’t do that, then you can deal with this by having a response ready to explain your apparent lack of re-action to the situation your child finds themself in. For example, you can simply explain ‘I feel it’s better that they learn how to ask for what they need from us to help them solve a situation rather than expecting us to rush in and rescue them whenever they get into trouble’. If you’re still then met with a dirty look, then just remember, your job as a parent isn’t to do what others think is best for your child, instead, it is to do what it actually best for them!

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.

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