How To Raise Children with Healthy Self-Esteem
By Dr. Sarah Haas *
Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves at our core. Although events may happen in our lives that make us feel really good or really badly about ourselves in that moment, these feelings are transient and do not impact our core sense of self. Healthy core self-esteem leads to healthy and secure friendships, independence, confidence, and happiness. Wanting the best for our children likely means that we want to help them establish a healthy level of self-esteem. But how exactly do you help your child develop an internal sense of "I am a good person" and teach them how to draw their sense of self from healthy sources of information?
It's important to understand that a child's inner dialog is built from what others -- adults and peers -- tell them and how they act towards them. It breaks my heart every time I hear a young child tell me they get in trouble "for making bad choices". This seems to be something others in their life are telling them, that they could be internalizing (e.g., "I make bad choices a lot"; or "I'm a bad person"). Children who are high energy or have a short attention span or are "different" from their peers in other ways may be at risk for developing poor self-esteem based on the type and frequency of feedback they may be receiving from others. The good news is that there are some ways to help your child develop self-esteem.
1. Ask them what they are proud of themselves for that day
When I was at a daycare, I was surprised and so excited to hear a teacher ask their toddlers, "What are you proud of?" I thought this was such an excellent question to ask young children, one that I often ask my own kids. So of course I continued to watch this interaction, and in response to this question a child said "Ice cream!" and the teacher wrote that response down under that child's name. What a missed opportunity to help the child understand what it means to be proud of something, and to teach them what sort of things they should be proud of.
Whether it is at the beginning, middle, or end of the day, ask your child what they are really proud of themselves for. This can provide you some insight as to where your child is drawing their self-esteem from (e.g., their physical appearance, helping a friend, doing what they are told), and it allows you a chance to help guide their self-esteem development from good sources. If you and your child are new at this conversation, have something prepared that you are proud of them for in case your child requires some help with this. So how do you choose what you are proud of them for, or, what are some "good sources" to develop self-esteem from? I suggest thinking about someone you think is a really good person and identifying the qualities that make that person stand out. To me, these are qualities that help people be successful in life. Thus, persistence without giving up, helping others, listening and doing what is asked of them, leadership qualIties, and reading others' emotional cues (e.g., giving someone a hug when they seemed sad) are all great things to emphasize here.
Why is this important? As humans, we tend to focus on the negatives more so than the positives (When is the last time someone said you did something well?), which can easily become internalized. This means we often can think of things we did bad today or negative qualities about ourselves quicker than the positives. This absolutely impacts our self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence. Also, having this conversation with your child allows you to help them learn what healthy sources of self-esteem are and sets a positive sense of self in place as their foundation.
2. Change their mindset from "I can't" to "I can"
I love teaching children this one. When a child is engaged in something I know they can do, or can try to do, and they say, "I can't", I only help them after they say "I can do it" and they give it a good effort. If they need help doing it, I then show them what they did well and reinforce that they can do it, with help.
First, it is important to use this technique with activities that are developmentally appropriate for each child. That is, if you ask a 5-year-old to compute what 3 x 3 is and they say, "I can't do it", it's not helpful to tell them they can do it given that they haven't learned the skills yet to do come up with the right answer. However, if you ask a 5-year-old to put their shoes on and they say, "I can't do it", this is a great opportunity to tell them--and show them--they absolutely can do it.
Second, when a child says "I can't do it" to something they truly cannot do, I still change this phrasing for them and encourage them to say "I need help" instead of "I can't do it". Following the example above, if a 5-year-old is asked to compute what 3 x 3 is and they say, "I can't do it", I might say something like, "It's not that you can't do it; you just need help to do it!" After all, life is not about having all of the answers or always being able to "do it", but rather it's about being resourceful and figuring out ways to do things you can't do or don't have answers to at that moment.
Why is this important? the word "Can't" or "Can Not" is so strong and definitive, and mostly, untrue! Think of the last time you told yourself you "can't" do something. What did you do after that? I'd hedge a bet that you gave up trying. The more you give up trying to do something, the easier it is and quicker you are likely to give up doing that particular thing--and other things!--in the future.
3. Help them find activities they enjoy, that they are OK at.
Did I catch your attention with this one?
Finding activities that your child enjoys is probably intuitive. You know what your child enjoys, and you want them to do the things they enjoy whenever it is feasible for you.
But why do we want choose activities they are just OK at doing? Well, this answer may be obvious -- if we choose activities that children are not good at doing and force them to do those activities, children won't like it. This does not help them build self-confidence, and could potentially hurt their self-confidence. If we choose activities that children excel at, those activities may not be very fun for the child because there is no challenge involved. Rather, they may just be going through the motions while engaged in that activity, which may not impact their sense of self (especially if your child has natural skills for the activity they excel at). But, if we choose activities they are OK at, they can feel challenged and demonstrate persistence with that activity. Think of it this way: Do you feel good about yourself when you do something really well that you've done really well a lot of times? Do you feel good when you accomplish a goal that was challenging within your skill set? If you feel good in both scenarios, does feeling good feel stronger or last longer in the latter scenario?
Why is this important? This is a fun way to show your child that they can do it - they can persist through challenges, they can accomplish goals, and that they can just let go and enjoy being themselves without overthinking it!
4. Given them control once (or twice!) a day
Have you ever had a job where your expertise was challenged, or you were constantly micromanaged or always told what to do? Was that a positive experience for you?
That answer is likely NO. But when you think about it, as parents we are constantly giving our child directives so we can go to soccer practice or eat a meal or clean up. Now, we have to give our children commands to effectively get through our day, and it's a good skill for children to have to be able to effectively follow commands. However, we should still make time for children to have control, or lead an activity, a few times a day. This allows them to experience making decisions on their own and being positively reinforced for the decisions they make.
Now, this is not the same as them going off and playing by themselves without you being there. Your presence while they have control over the activity is important so that you can continually provide them feedback about the decisions they are making. Your child wants to color Elsa's dress orange? What a creative decision! Your child wants to invent a game where you hop on one foot forever? I love how you think outside of the box! Your child wants to sing a song they don't know the words to? I love your enthusiasm!
Enjoy them enjoying themselves, and give them loads of positive feedback focused on the things you want them to build their self-esteem off of (e.g., creativity, thinking outside the box, enthusiasm). Is that how I would color Elsa, or a game that I find fun to play? Perhaps not, but don't let your opinion devalue your child's opinions. If you take over control the activity (e.g., "No; do it this way" or "How about we color the dog brown?") this becomes an activity where they follow directives rather than exerting control, and at worst this may send the message that their decisions are wrong and can lead them to giving up altogether.
Why is this important? Children very rarely get the opportunity to have control over an activity, especially while getting adult attention. This helps show your child rather than tell them that they are an awesome little human being, and we all know that showing can be the more effective learning strategy. This helps your child develop those leadership qualities they may not have as much of an opportunity to learn when they are simply following commands during the day.
5. Don't compare them to other people
Social comparisons seem to be an epidemic these days, with some sources pointing to "picture perfect" lives on social media being a major culprit. I also think that comparing ourselves to others is an easy trap to fall into. Think about how many times society facilitates social comparisons from job applications to standardized testing in schools. Also, when we're not sure how well we are doing at a particular activity, we naturally look to data to determine this. The easiest way to gather data is by determining how well others are doing in the same or similar activities. But is that an appropriate comparison? I would argue that social comparisons very rarely result in a positive (or even neutral) outcome. Furthermore, I would argue that social comparisons even more rarely make us feel good about ourselves.
Just like it feels easy and almost natural to compare ourselves to others, it may be easy to compare ourselves to other children. Is your child walking yet? How many words can your child say? Is your child having a hard time in Math class too? We may be telling ourselves we need this information to understand how "normal" our child is to dtermine
In fact, it may be even easier to compare one child to another when that child has siblings. There is a difference between saying "Wow, Jane, you are coming to the table for lunch so quickly--good job!" when Jack is lagging behind, versus, "Jack, come ooooon. Why can't you be more like your sister? She listens so well." The first scenario is giving positive feedback to someone doing something well, and can encourage others to do the same. The second scenario can be sending the internal message of "I'm screwing up again".
Why is this important? I think social comparisons are something that society fosters and that is easy for us to do for ourselves and for others. But I also find that the results of this can be damaging. So this is one of those things that I think requires a lot of our attention to actively reduce the influence social comparisons have on children's developing self-esteem.
6. Teach them to give themselves feedback
Did I do a good job with this? Is this cool? Do you like that I helped you? Are you happy I helped my sister?
All of the answers to these questions are likely YES, and it is important to give children that feedback! But choose a time or two to throw the question back at them, without giving them your personal opinion on the matter. For example, "Do you feel you did a good job with it?", and really explore how they interpret it.
Why is this important? Seeking positive reinforcement from external sources to the exclusion of being able to praise yourself can set up children to base their value directly on how other people view them. Given that we cannot control how others feel about us, this can be a particularly ineffective way to develop self-esteem - especially if we hang around people who are less than supportive in our lives.
7. Love them unconditionally
So, I'm ending on a potentially obvious one here, but this is also a really, really important one. If you have someone who loves you even during your worst moments in life, that opens us up to the possibility that maybe we are worthwhile. The more our children hear the message "You are worthwhile", the more likely they are to internalize that message and feel that they are worthwhile.
What do you do to show your child you love them unconditionally? I would argue that this one is particularly important to do when your child is acting out.
This does not mean that you should never be frustrated with your child or that you should be playing with your child 24/7 for them to hear this message! I think it's important to recognize you are human and you are likely to get frustrated with other people--your own children included!--at times, and that's OK. You can still love your child unconditionally while being frustrated or yelling at times. Spending a little quality time with your child each day can go a long way.
Here's the final piece to this puzzle - understanding yourself. What is your self-esteem based on? Do you feel like you are a good person at your core? What are some things you do that make you feel like you are a good person?
You may not have had the opportunity to grow and develop around others who were intimately focused on you developing a healthy sense of self. This means that you have may been left to the influences of others around your--your parents, teachers, peers, siblings--to determine how you develop your self-esteem. For example, people who are bullied for being overweight may draw self-esteem from being physically fit. Others who are told they are stupid may draw self-esteem from pursuing academic endeavors. If your mom or dad always cleaned the house when they had a bad day, you may have learned that cleaning your house on a bad day makes you feel better, and the cleaner your house is the better you are as a person.
The sources you derive your sense of self from are likely things that you tend to give more praise to both for yourself and in your children. You are constantly modeling behaviors for your child. So if you base your self-esteem in academic achievements, your child will pick up on the link between self-esteem and academics based on the behaviors you engage in. Also, these are likely things you are going to praise yourself, and your child, for. As such, it may be very helpful to pause and think: Where sources of information to I derive my sense of self-worth from? What are the qualities or achievements I am most likely to praise my child for? Are these the things I want my child to derive their self-esteem from?
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