It’s no secret that positive sense of self is linked to better relationships, overall mental and physical health, and general achievement in tasks. So it’s also easy to understand why helping a child develop positive self esteem is so important.
Regardless of whether your child is more sensitive and self critical, or appears confident and outgoing, there are some concrete ways in which to ensure your child develops a strong sense of self. Remember, self confidence and self esteem, while related, are not the same thing. Confidence refers to abilities and is based on external factors. Esteem is based on intrinsic values and ideas and other internal factors.
Before we jump into the ways to build self esteem, lets quickly look at the pitfalls and some reasons children develop lower self esteem.
Disapproving/Preoccupied Authority and Care Givers: When people in authority (teachers, instructors, parents) frequently give negative attention and criticisms, children begin to develop the internal idea that they are not good enough and always failing. When attention lacks, especially in regards to scenarios of achievement, children may start to believe themselves to be unimportant and not worth noticing. A feeling that you are not of concern to anyone fosters thoughts associated with depression such as feeling like a burden. This can lead to a belief that you are supposed to apologize for your mere existence.
Over-Supportive Parents: A child who has been “sheltered” in a way, by not being given the opportunity to have negative experiences, often displays feelings of shame as they get older and are forced to confront negative experiences without a indiscriminate support system. Shame has a tendency to cloud perspective and when a parental vision and everyone’s else vision of a child don’t match, it becomes difficult to trust what’s real and what isn’t. That uncertainty and doubt can cause so much hesitancy and feeling that they’re just not good enough.
Academic Challenges without Support: Low grades are not the problem. The way a child’s parents and teachers respond is the problem. If they are often met with disappointment, questions like “what happened?” or left to figure it out on their own, there is a greater likelihood of internalizing ideas that they are defective. They begin to believe there is something wrong with them, doubt their own intelligence, and be self conscious about expressing their own opinions in fear they are genuinely stupid.
Trauma: Abuse in any form (physical, sexual, or emotional) is one of the most obvious causes of low self esteem. Children (and adults) often accept abuse as something that was somehow their own fault and they were deserving of it. Coping skills for untreated abuse are often experienced out of shame themselves (eating disorders, self injury, acting out etc), so feelings of shame, disappointment, and worthlessness become a part of the inner dialogue leading to low self esteem.
Society and the Media: With the increase in availability to technology, so does the increased ability for children to begin comparing themselves to unrealistic images in the media. Bombardment of all the possible imperfections in physical appearance and their relation to your worth are planting seeds of doubt among children aged younger and younger
Okay. So what can we do?!
- Provide clear, but not critical feedback: It can be difficult to talk to children about things they need to improve upon. Criticism, even in the best intentions, is not often understood by children. More often they hear that they’re doing something wrong vs. right. They might feel embarrassed or ashamed to try again. Leave the criticism out and instead focus on what will help and only address that. Things like, “You get more help when you stay after school” vs. “Your grades would improve if you tried harder.”
- Help your child to develop a Growth Mindset: Mistakes are a part of life. Sitting with disappointment is difficult, but doing so helps develop distress tolerance and appropriate coping skills as well as resiliency. Teaching your child to accept mistakes and disappointments as opportunities to grow and get better serves them much more over time in terms of their ability to deal with a setback or unexpected change.
- Praise approach and efforts, not just results: If your child accomplishes something, of course praise them, but it’s also important to add value to their approach. When you do this, you acknowledge that a child has the capacity to overcome obstacles and face challenges. When a child asks for help, praise can go a long way in promoting feelings of confidence and self assurance.
- Be an open role model: Talk to your child about your own difficult experiences (age and situation appropriate). Talk about your own strengths and acknowledge your own weakness and how this doesn’t make your worth any less. Brainstorm and ask your child for solutions to problems. The more open dialogue and positive framework for discomfort, the better your child will internalize their own positive sense of self.
- Increase exposure to different role models: Specifically in regards to social media and advertisements, it’s important to make a conscious and intentional effort to introduce and expose your child to a diversity of people. Use athletes, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and others who have struggled with obstacles as examples of staying motivated and resilient and that nobody is perfect.
Remember that nobody is perfect. Mistakes will be made as adults and parents of children, but as long as YOU are trying your best as well, children will typically follow.