Advice Column, Health, Parenting, Tween & Teen

The Big Issue With Self Esteem

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  • Category Advice Column, Health, Parenting, Tween & Teen

What is all the fuss about and what can parents do to improve their children’s self-esteem?

In recent years self-esteem has become a bit of a buzz word. Parents, teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists and social workers (to name a few) have all become reasonably obsessed with the concept, and near panic proportions are reached if a parent is told that their child has (gasp) POOR self-esteem! For many parents, the very thought that their child might have poor self-esteem is met with horror, severe guilt and is coupled with dire thoughts about the child’s future and whether or not he or she will ever be a success. But what is self-esteem exactly, and why is it so important? More importantly, what can parents do to ensure that children develop a healthy self-esteem?

Put very simply, self-esteem is the way in which a person thinks and feels about him or herself. An individual with good self-esteem perceives herself as acceptable, competent and accomplished. A person with poor self-esteem feels unacceptable and doubts his or her ability to confront and solve problems in a masterful manner. The reason there is a big fuss about self-esteem is that it does appear linked to important things such as physical and mental health and satisfaction in life. Many studies have shown that poor self-esteem is linked to such things as low academic performance, depression, anxiety, sexual risk behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse…to name a few.

It is therefore reasonably understandable that parents feel a sense of concern over the quality of their children’s self-esteem. The big question then, is WHAT CAN PARENTS DO to enhance the self-esteem of their children? The following article will answer this question, starting from the moment that an individual first becomes a parent, giving simple hints and suggestions for dealing with infants and older children alike.

Infancy: The importance of a good attachment

A child’s most significant relationship is usually (although not necessarily) with it’s parents. It is within the safety of this primary relationship that children start developing thoughts and feelings about themselves that are mirrored to them through the eyes of their parents. The bond between a parent and child is traditionally referred to as the ‘attachment’ between the child and it’s primary caregiver. The quality of this attachment can range on a continuum from very good, to very poor and starts developing from the moment that a child is born.

Importantly, a good attachment is one of the primary foundations upon which one’s self-esteem is based. Although there is no rule book for establishing a positive attachment with one’s infant, there are a few things that parents can do to make a good attachment more likely. There are also red flags to look out for that might prevent a parent from establishing a good attachment with one’s child.

Most significantly, it is critical that parents are RESPONSIVE and focussed on the needs of the child. Infants are completely dependent on their parents for protection and nourishment and are unable to meet any of their needs independently. A responsive parent is one who is reasonably in tune with their infant. As such, they are able to react quickly and accurately to the needs of the child. These needs could be physical or emotional and may include food, a clean nappy, comfort, warmth or sleep. As the child gets older and more interactive, this responsive style starts to include the child’s increasingly complex emotional experiences. It becomes important for a parent to accurately respond to both positive emotions, such as smiling back or laughing when the child smiles; or negative emotions, such as soothing a frustrated or upset infant.

Red flags for parents to be aware of are any issues that prevent a parent from being able to respond to the needs of their child. These could include: post natal depression, marital conflict, alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness such as depression or anxiety, or burnout from severe work stress. Parents are advised to seek timely help from a professional if they are unable to cope with these issues on their own or with the help and support of family and friends.

Consistent praise and encouragement: How it relates to self-esteem

As children grow older and start talking, praise and encouragement become incredibly important for children and are a vital ingredient in promoting a healthy self-esteem. Positive feedback can relate to behaviours, but can also relate to specific aspects of a child’s character (for example, “You were so kind when you helped that little boy who fell”; “You laugh so easily, I love your sense of humour”) as well to the relationship between you and your child (“you’re my special boy”; “I love you”). In these ways, positive feedback can help a child to understand that they are loved and cherished, for specific qualities that are noticed and appreciated.

Solve problems WITH your child rather than FOR them

As children continue developing, their abilities become more complex and more is expected of them by society. As individuals, our ability to confront and solve problems determines much of our experience of success or failure. Children who consistently rely on parents to solve their problems for them are unlikely to feel the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from solving their own problems. In addition, as children develop into adults, over-reliance on parents for problem solving will lead to unhealthy levels of dependence. In order to foster independence and a positive self-esteem, it is important that parents allow or assist children to solve their own problems. Problem solving refers to a variety of different situations and often involves a great deal of patience from parents. For example, it might take your child ten agonizing minutes to figure out how to use a new toy or to find the place where the puzzle piece fits in. Although you might be able to do it for your child in seconds, it is more important that you allow your child to explore the toy or puzzle in their own time. In the same way, whilst your first instinct might be to rescue your child who is being teased at school, it might be better to help them think of ways in which they can solve the problem for themselves.

Allow your child opportunities for mastery

All children need to have experiences of being needed and valuable in order to develop a positive self-esteem. Allowing children opportunities to master tasks goes a long way to instilling in them a good self-esteem. Opportunities for mastering tasks occur on a daily basis and can range from very small tasks (such as closing the lid on the tomato sauce when children are very small) to mastering major developmental steps (such as toilet training) and taking full responsibility for homework. Whilst there are many opportunities for mastery that occur naturally every day (and these will differ depending on the age of you child), it is possible for you to create opportunities as well. This can often come in the form of small chores for your child to complete in the house, ranging from bathing themselves, to helping set the table, feed the animals, carrying the salt and pepper through to the kitchen…and so forth. This does not constitute child labour! Rather, it gives children an opportunity from early in life to experience themselves as a competent, valuable member of the household who has an important contribution to make.

Encourage the full range of emotional expression

In order to feel acceptable and good about themselves, it is important that children understand that all their emotions are acceptable. Some parents confuse negative emotions (such as anger and frustration) with negative BEHAVIOUR. This need not be the case. All emotions are healthy and valuable. It is simply the way in which they are expressed which determines whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Parents can help children to find ways to express their negative emotions in such a way that they do not get into trouble for them. So for example, an angry or frustrated child can be encouraged to talk about his or her emotions, or hit a punching bag, rather than smacking their friend!

A final word: Be a good role model

The old saying “do as I say, not what I do”, does not apply to the issue of self-esteem! It is difficult for parents with very poor self-esteem to instil good self-esteem in their children. Whilst this might cause some parents to feel despair, it need not be something negative for you or for your child. Seen in a different light, the process of building a healthy self-esteem in your child might offer a unique opportunity for your own personal growth – you just need to mean what you say and apply it to both of you. For example, when you say to your child ‘it doesn’t matter that you didn’t win, you played very well and seemed to have a lot of fun’, challenge your own ideas about winning and losing – is this something that you need to work on personally? Are there some automatic negative thoughts you have about being a winner or a loser that you would be able to challenge? In most cases, you will be able to do this yourself. However, if you believe that your own self-esteem problems are chronic and impact negatively on your relationships, then it might be something you would like to address with the help of a professional.

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