Evidence-based Tips to Give Your Child the Gift of Self Acceptance

If a genie granted me just one wish for my children, I’d choose self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance is not about vanity or narcissism. It is about teaching our kids to know themselves and to accept themselves as they are: The weaknesses. The strengths. The tears. The joys. The uncertainty.

Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire have found that although self-acceptance is possibly the key to a happier life, it is one of the habits practised least. Yet, children can be taught to develop habits to make it easier to accept themselves.

Teaching Self Acceptance.

1) Know thyself

To develop self-acceptance, it is important for children to be aware of their strengths but also their weaknesses. Teaching children to be aware of their weaknesses is good because identifying weaknesses is a first step to knowing whether those weaknesses can be changed or whether they should be accepted without judgement.

Helping your child identify and celebrate his strengths is important because like adults, children tend to focus more on their shortcomings than on their strengths.

What You Can Do. 

  • Help your child identify his strengths and weakness by listing them down.
  • Take it slow – if necessary take several days.
  • It might be helpful to begin with simple things like “I’m helpful” or “I have many friends” then add to the list.
  • If your child still has trouble, guide him by calling attention to all the things he has accomplished, constructed or overcome.

2) Teach your child to avoid defining herself by her actions

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck shows that children who are told they are “smart” when they do “something smart” start to believe they’re “dumb” when they do “something dumb”. She suggests that instead of defining children by actions “you’re smart”, parents should praise the action “that’s a smart thing you did”.

The same can be said about self-acceptance. Teaching children that they are not defined by what they do makes it easier for them to gain self-acceptance.

What You Can do.

  • Teach your children to separate themselves from their actions.
  • Teach them that just as they are not bad people when they do something bad (“that was a mean thing to do” instead of “you’re mean”), they are not smart people when they do something well (“you learnt your poem really fast” rather than “how clever you are!”).

3) Reinforce positive self-talk

There is much evidence that words and thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Although much controversy surrounds the value of positive affirmations, there are studies that suggest that positive self-affirmations are beneficial. They can improve problem-solving and creativity under stress, lead to psychological wellbeing, and increase confidence and self-compassion and pro-social behaviours.

When attempting to use positive self-affirmations with children, it is important to focus on realistic and specific (explanatory) affirmations.

Positive affirmation cannot work if the deeply held negative beliefs are not aligned with the declared affirmations. For instance, having your child repeat “I am good at rugby” when he’s obviously terrible will only worsen the situation.

How you phrase affirmations also plays a role in ensuring the success or failure of positive affirmations. Instead of “I have many friends”, a better affirmation for kids would be “I have many friends because I always help people out.” If you’d like to find out more about using positive affirmations with children, check out this post.

4) Practice gratitude

Gratitude is defined as a thankful appreciation of what is meaningful. The majority of research studies have found that people who practice gratitude are happier and enjoy greater wellbeing.

One study on gratitude found that people who regularly wrote down the things about which they were grateful were more optimistic, felt better about their lives and had fewer visits to physicians.

To encourage children to be grateful, it is important to teach them to count their blessings. Make gratitude a habit by picking a time as a family, for example before meals, to talk about your blessings.

If a daily schedule is difficult, pick a weekly schedule. When using a weekly schedule, it might be helpful to choose a specific number of things (for example three things for each family member) to note down.

You could also introduce a gratitude journal where older kids note down a specific number of things they are grateful for each week.

5) Observe your child’s explanatory style

Seligman and his colleagues describe explanatory styles as the patterns of how people explain events to themselves and to others: “An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness”.

While optimists see negative events as temporary, specific and impersonal, pessimists see them as permanent, pervasive and personal.

Explanatory flexibility is the ability to be flexible in the manner in which you assign causes to negative life events. It is the ability to develop multiple solutions. It is the ability to abandon optimistic views in the light of information that contradicts these views.

A study conducted at the Kent State University observed a drop in pessimism among subjects who repeatedly provided alternative (not more optimistic) explanations for events.

What you can do.

  • It is important for children to know that they have control over their destiny. Talk to your child about her perception of difficult situations.
  • Explain to your child that she is responsible for outcomes; help her get into the habit of looking for the root of the problem. For example, if she has poor reading skills, explain why it is only through reading that she can improve and help her establish a reading schedule.
  • Curb your pessimistic tendencies. Children learn much from watching their parents.
  • Teach your child explanatory flexibility by asking her to provide alternative (not optimistic) explanations for events.

This post is an excerpt from my Ebook Fifteen Days to Independent Kids. Find out more here or download a free preview here.

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