Self-esteem issues are tricky and messy, especially when you’re a kid. Kids rarely know how to talk themselves out of moments of doubt, and they are less able to use techniques such as self-affirmation to overcome difficult moments. Kids are also terribly vulnerable.
Research on the benefits of self-esteem abounds.
- The higher a child’s self-esteem, the better his education outcomes.
- People with high self-esteem are more optimistic and are more likely to view failure as a learning moment.
- People with high self-esteem are less likely to suffer from depression.
- Children with high self-esteem are less likely to succumb to peer pressure, and are also less likely to use drugs.
The problem with low self-esteem is that it does not so easily “go away”. There are examples of famous celebrities who have struggled with low self-esteem issues despite their immense success:
• Mariah Carey once said “I’ve always had really low self-esteem, and I still do.”
• Meryl Streep said: “I have varying degrees of confidence and self-loathing.”
• Shia LaBeouf was quoted as saying “Most actors on most days don’t think they’re worthy. I have no idea where this insecurity comes from, but it’s a God-sized hole. If I knew, I’d fill it, and I’d be on my way.”
• Czeslaw Milosz, who won a Nobel Prize in literature, once said “From early on writing for me has been a way to overcome my real or imagined worthlessness.”
People suffering from low self-esteem experience greater social anxiety. Low self-esteem has also been linked to a higher risk of teenage pregnancy.
Low self-esteem can manifest itself in many ways. One study that had counsellors list the most common characteristics associated with low self-esteem in students highlighted traits such as shyness/quietness, negativity, unhappiness, anger/acting-out, lack of motivation, depression, lack of autonomy, poor self-image and poor communication skills.
Although most of these characteristics can be observed in almost all children at one time or another, there might be a cause for concern if your child displays negative characteristics way too often, and if she often engages in counterproductive coping strategies such as avoidance, aggressiveness or bullying.
In a study spanning six years, Coopersmith highlighted the main characteristics of parents whose kids have a healthy sense of self. Other studies such as those undertaken by Seligman have come to similar conclusions.
The research presented in Coopersmith’s book The Antecedents of Self-Esteem has stood the test of time. One of its key lessons is that fostering self-esteem is not about making your child “feel good”. Rather, it is about providing an environment that enables him to “do well”. In other words, children “feel good” when they are able to overcome challenges and when they experience success.
So how can you help your child develop a positive sense of self?
Unconditional love does not mean accepting bad behavior. It means letting your child know that you’re there, and that you care. And that she can come to you no matter what. Unconditional love means love, affection and warmth.
Hold “great” expectations
Children develop a positive sense of self when reasonable expectations are set, and when they are held accountable for meeting those expectations.
In his book The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, Seligman argues that a child develops his sense of worth when certain things such as mastery and persistence are expected from him.
He warns, however, that expecting too much from your child can lead to “learned helplessness”, so set reasonable expectations and raise them gradually. Remember that success breeds success. As Cooperman states, one of the greatest determinants of self-esteem is a “history of successes.”
Break challenges into achievable steps. Focus on what your child can do, rather than what he’s expected to do.
Celebrate your child’s achievements and give praise where praise is due. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck states that “your perceptions of what it takes to be competent, has a powerful impact on how you measure yourself and therefore how you approach achievement itself”, so be clear on how you define success to your child.
Don’t shield your child from failure
We all want to shield our children from failure. We want to smooth out their paths so that they don’t have to deal with disappointment and sorrow and heartache. But when you shield your kids from failure, you’re actually setting them up for greater problems in the future.
As Seligman argues, “failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good.” So let go. Let your child fail but remain close-by to help him interpret failure – how he does this will have a great impact on his self-esteem.
Teach her to deal with failure
Failure will happen because that’s just an inevitable part of life. Teaching your child to see failure as a learning experience help’s her view it as a temporary situation under her control. Help your child determine why she failed but don’t focus on the past: what can you do next time to succeed? Don’t judge the person “you’re lazy”, judge the action “you didn’t practice enough”.
Letting your child know you believe in her will help her believe in herself. However, knowing that failure is a part of life doesn’t take away the bad feelings so be on the look out for strong emotions such as anxiety and anger that will no doubt arise.
Teach your child to manage those feelings in appropriate ways: listen to music, read a book, dance, paint, cry… Remember that sometimes all she’ll really need is a hug.
Keep track of negative thoughts
As Seligman argues, how you explain things to your child and how he explains those things to himself can either stop helplessness or spread helplessness. When you teach your child to develop a positive explanatory style, he learns that he can “do better if he practices for 10 minutes every day”.
Help your child keep track of negative comments by keeping a “negative comments diary”. Develop a special code (for example touch your ear) every time he says a negative statement. Being aware of how negative he really is (or you are) will help him change how he perceives negative events.
Accepting your children for who they are, rather than for who they should be, is the first step toward self-esteem. The second step is teaching your kids that they are responsible for how they react.