Self-esteem describes the way we see ourselves. It is commonly thought of as a measure of how we estimate our self-worth, our skills and our deficits. It is normal for children (as well as adults) to experience self-doubt and occasional periods of feeling down on themselves. However, as parents it is often one of our highest aspirations and responsibilities to assist our children in believing in their own abilities and growing into capable and confident adults.
Factors Leading To Low Self-Esteem
It is important to point out that some factors contributing to low self-esteem in children are beyond a parent’s control. Temperament is real and some children are just naturally more unsure of themselves than their paramours who leap into life and make it look easy to thrive and try new things. Birth order, cultural and societal factors and unforeseen life experiences can lend to feelings of low self-worth. But many other factors that lead to issues with self-esteem can be avoided by parents seeking to provide their children with the greatest leg up in life. These factors include:
- Lack of limit-setting and inconsistent discipline or none at all
- Unreasonable expectations of child by parents or extended family
- Physical or emotional abuse (harsh criticism, blaming, belittling, embarrassing the child)
- Comparisons of child with his or her siblings, classmates, or others
- Lack of interest in, attention to or affection in words and gestures
- Parental substance abuse or mental illness
- Domestic violence or frequent arguments between parents witnessed by child
- Competing priorities (parent-vs-child) or lack of fit between parent/child temperament
The Good News – You Can Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem
The great news is that even children who have experienced set-backs as large as personal or familial trauma, medical complications, poverty or loss can find a path toward self-love and confidence. It goes without saying, therefore that children with a shy or insecure temperament can build their feelings of self-worth as well. A little help goes a long way and as parents or educators there are a number of things you can do to contribute to a child’s healthy ego.
Lifestyle – First, most children thrive with structure and setting good habits around personal hygiene, appropriate bedtime, positive diet consisting of balanced food groups and a healthy dose of exercise and movement every day is a vital building block to children’s well-being.
Authentic Praise – This is to say – the real, genuine expression of pride in your child’s efforts. It’s important to recognize that children can sense when we are not being true. Equally so, children can experience shame or pressure when we place too much emphasis on the results of their actions and fail to notice their efforts or hard work. A good example of authentic praise would be: “Johnny I am so impressed with how much time and hard work you put into that class project.” Instead of – “Wow! You rock! That project is totally gonna win 1st Place!”
Foster Independence – As soon as your child can do something for him/herself encourage them to do so. Don’t make the mistake of believing that sheltering your child from responsibility or even failure will make them happier. In fact, the contrary has been shown to occur. Encourage your child to take care of their belongings, their body, and their environment. Ask for your child’s help with set chores, their opinions on problems and even their advice (when age appropriate).
Strength Seeker – It is important not to push your own interests onto your child but rather to diligently investigate what his or her own natural talents and interests may be. Meaning that even though you were a star soccer player, recognize that your child might not like sports at all. It is vital for your child’s happiness that he/she finds those things that make him unique. For this to happen you need to expose your child to many opportunities and interests and see what takes flight. This doesn’t have to cost a fortune. It just requires imagination and research on your part. Show your child musicals and experiment with art forms. Get outside with a ball and join meet-ups and play dates to foster new friendships and opportunities. When your child finds their passion they will ask you to help them pursue it – not the other way around.
Practice Empathy & Problem Solving – Children need to know that they are heard and understood. When your child expresses fear, self-doubt, resistance or hesitancy it is important to let them know that what they are feeling is normal but does not define them. For example when your child says, “I’m scared to try out for that team. What if they are all better than me?” Rather than saying, “Don’t be scared! You’re the best one there.” You could try, “Oh honey, it’s totally normal to feel scared to try something new. Lets talk about all the pro’s and con’s for trying out.”
Monitor & Limit Screen Time – In today’s day and age no discussion about self-esteem would be complete without mentioning screen time. Countless studies now suggest that increased time spent on TVs, tablets, phones and other devises affect children’s well-being negatively. In young children it can be associated with irritability, behavior problems and even learning delays. In older children and teens excessive time spent on social media has been shown to increase feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. What is clear is that real friends matter and there is little substitution for one-on-one play and interaction. A quick online search will give you recommended screen time limitations according to your child’s age.
Be Present, Engaged and Invested in Your Child
Finally, the most important thing you can do for your child when it comes to building a positive self esteem is to be present and tuned-in. However, this does not mean hovering and micro-managing your child’s every move. By simply noticing what is going on with your child and by reflecting it back you can bring a level of self-awareness to your child that will serve him/her again and again. Notice that your child is struggling to make friends and role play social situations with your child. Notice that she is feeling sluggish or irritated after watching TV for an hour and make a plan to get some exercise together outside. Notice where your own imbalances lie and become the best role model you can be for your child. Demonstrate the courage it takes to try new activities, explore new parks, free events, and new friendships. Notice your own tendency to talk about other people you know or encounter. If your talk is negative or critical – remember that this is seeping into your child’s psyche. Therefore, talk enthusiastically about others who are trying their best, fully engaged in life and even those who fail while attempting. Most importantly, notice those areas where your child lights up and shines and build in more opportunities for small successes every day.
Please Note – Prolonged feelings of sadness or loneliness or expressions of fear, self-doubt or reluctance to engage in new situations or with new people can be signs of anxiety, depression or illnesses needing professional attention. These problems are completely treatable and your child’s pediatrician, social worker or other mental health will be able to point you in the right direction for suitable services for you and your child.
Author: Amy Johnson Chong, LCSW. Amy J. Chong is a Trauma Informed Parent/Child Psychotherapist with over 20 years of serving families and children through counseling, classes, workshops, mindfulness training, massage therapy, yoga and rejuvenating retreats. Find her at www.livingallin.org or www.kinderkonsulting.com
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