By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
It seems like so many people out there suffer from low self-esteem! How did this epidemic get started? How do I prevent it from affecting my child?
Self-esteem is based on having a conscious awareness of, honoring and respecting one's own emotions, needs, decisions and desires. A person with healthy self-esteem thinks, “I am aware of how I feel. Sometimes I feel this way, and sometimes I feel that way. I have a right to feel anything I want. My desires are legitimate and should be honored. I have a right to honor and try to fulfill any of my desires. My needs are important and people need to respect and attend to them. My decisions are valid and important and need to be honored and respected by people.” Such a person not only has a healthy relationship with himself, but since he treats himself with so much respect, he tends to treat others with equal respect and to be very kind, generous and helpful. How do we get a child to think in this healthy way?
How to help my child feel good about himself?
The answer is that we as parents need to set a powerful example and honor, respect, validate and support our child's needs, feelings, decisions and desires. When we treat a child this way he learns by example that his very self, his deepest true being deserves respect and kindness. In short, the child learns to view and treat himself the same way we as parents view and treat him. If we criticize him he will learn to view himself as no good and worthy of criticism, but if we accept and even celebrate his mistakes he will learn "I am a fine person even when I make mistakes.”
Awareness of emotional life.
In addition, we need to accept and call attention to all of the child's emotional states, so he gains a healthy awareness and acceptance of them. If we ignore, don't accept, or don't respond to his emotions he will learn, “My emotions are not important and should not be taken into consideration.” If we express disapproval of expression of emotions such as anger, aggression, displeasure or frustration, he will learn the terrible habit of repressing them. He will learn that his feelings are not important, and since feelings are the most crucial part of the self, he will learn that his self is not important and have low self-esteem. However if we teach a child to be consciously aware of his emotions, to truly and deeply feel his feelings even negative ones, he will learn “My very self is acceptable and should be celebrated.”
If we say no to his desires too often and make too many decisions for him without taking his desires into enough consideration, he learns, “My desires are not important. No one respects them. They don't deserve respect. I will not listen to them or respect them either.” This leads him to feel badly about himself, as well as all sorts of other problems. But if we respect and honor his desires and decisions as much as is safely possible, and even when we can't fulfill a desire we accept, validate and celebrate his right to have that desire, he learns, “My desires are important and deserve respect,” and since desires are a critical part of the self he will therefore learn to respect himself.
Nothing creates low self-esteem more than being mistreated by or having conflict with one's parents!
Therefore we must be careful to treat children with the ultimate in respect, gentleness consideration and kindness, and avoid harshness and conflict like the plague. Whatever supposed benefit you hope to get out of harshness, criticism, scolding or conflict, is far outweighed by the damage done to self-esteem.
Don’t generate repressed anger!
If a parent mistreats a child in any way such as giving stern reprimands, criticism, yelling or punishment, the child is automatically angered by that mistreatment. I understand that all parents err in these areas, but it pays to be aware of the truth of the matter. Most of the time the child is afraid to express his anger for fear of more reprimands, and if he does express his anger it is usually not validated and accepted, therefore he learns the king of unhealthy emotional habits, repression of anger. Such a habit not only generates low self-esteem but also depression, anxiety, ADHD and a whole host of emotional illnesses. In addition there is new evidence coming out that repressed anger causes cancer, autoimmune disease and heart disease, not to mention lifelong interpersonal conflict. Therefore it is extremely wise to be gentle and kind and try not to harm and therefore anger children unnecessarily. If they do get angry, you need to validate their anger and allow them to feel their feelings. Say, “Wow you seem to be feeling really angry. That makes you so angry. It’s ok to feel angry sometimes.”
Does self-esteem have a downside?
Some people may think that if a child feels too good about himself, or has very high self-esteem, he will be over-confident and as a result not make efforts to achieve good things, or he will become arrogant and feel superior to others. However celebrated author, educator and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, in his wonderful book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, cites numerous studies which prove this isn’t so. He demonstrates that high self-esteem results in even greater achievement and a tendency towards success, as well as better moral character and a habit of performing acts of kindness for one’s fellow, not to mention much better physical and emotional health, lifelong happiness and contentment.
In fact it’s low self-esteem that usually fuels arrogance!
Arrogant people usually deep down inside feel terrible about themselves and try to vaingloriously make up for that by pridefully making themselves out to be superior to others. Healthy self-esteem actually allows a person to be comfortable with his own shortcomings and paves the way for true humility! Furthermore, self-esteem and self-respect leads one to treat others with like respect, which represents the augmentation of others’ value in his eyes, which leads to true humility.
In addition healthy self-esteem actually prevents a child from wrongdoing. When he feels good about himself and the temptation to do wrong arises, he will desist, thinking, “Would such a good guy like me do a thing like that?”
Self-esteem is a need, not a privilege.
Children shouldn’t have to earn a feeling of self-esteem. It is not a privilege that they must jump through hoops to merit. It is a deep and fundamental need, a prerequisite for mental health that we as parents are obligated to provide for them. You don’t want a child’s self-esteem to be dependent solely on achievements, because then if he ever experiences setbacks, his esteem will be dashed on the rocks. You don’t want it to be dependent on the approval of others either. You want him to understand that he has a fundamental, unshakeable value as an ordinary, decent person, who has respect for the authenticity of his own feelings, needs, thoughts, and desires.
Be careful with praise!
It turns out that direct and effusive praise or evaluation does not create self-esteem either, it is usually perceived as insincere, as the child knows he is not as great as the praise is making him out to be. In addition, it puts pressure on the child to maintain unrealistic standards of greatness that the praise is setting. Praise and evaluation is a judgement by an other, and therefore it creates other-esteem, which is very fragile because others can just change their minds and it will be dashed.
So in order to create true self-esteem, it has to be esteem coming from the self. We create that by in addition to what I spoke about above, simply calling attention to good things the child did by objectively describing them without evaluating or praise. For example, instead of, “What a great ball player you are,” simply describe and celebrate, “Yay! You got it in.” Instead of “What a beautiful picture you drew,” say “I see a blue sky and a green house.” Instead of, “You set the table, what a great helper you are,” which puts her on a pedestal and sounds insincere, say, “You set the table, you were very helpful, I appreciate that,” and she will herself conclude, “I am helpful.”
We need to call attention to all the good things a child does and feels, and help him to overlook his mistakes. It is very important that we call attention to all the positive things our children do, and downplay and overlook their mistakes! Some parents feel that by pointing out mistakes and criticizing we are doing the child the favor of helping him improve but this is a huge mistake! Criticism and calling undue attention to errors shames the child which causes him to block out the unpleasant experience and prevent him from learning from it, and in addition it devastates his self-esteem!
Another good tip for developing self-esteem is to appreciate and celebrate every tiny step of even small accomplishments a child makes. Appreciating small things tends to snowball into great positive feelings.
Feeling unique and special
Self-esteem is not about feeling superior to others, it is about feeling unique and special as an individual. There is great joy in realizing that there never was or will be anyone just like you! We need to encourage children to realize this. How is it done?
My dear mentor, Dr. Ben Sorotzkin explains that the answer is that we as parents need to make our child feel that he is amazingly special to us as parents, just by virtue of his being our unique child. “You may only be only one person in the world but you should be the world to your parents.” Even if a particular child is totally ordinary and average compared to others, or even if he is inferior to most others, this attitude of being unique and special to his parents will generate healthy self-esteem and self-respect. And there’s an added bonus. Such a child will also develop tremendous respect, honor and esteem for his parents, who he will perceive as uniquely special because they perceive him as special, and this holds true even if his parents are just ordinary people compared to others!
How does Play Therapy help?
Play Therapy is an amazing tool for developing self-esteem. In te playroom, all feelings, needs desires, decisions, plans and ideas are totally accepted, even celebrated and given tremendous respect and importance. Every detail of every minute action that the child does in the playroom is given so much respect and validation that the child thinks, “My needs, desires, feelings and decisions are important, valid and worthy of respect.” Play Therapy together with tuning up your parenting is the golden solution to creating healthy self-esteem.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, download one of my informative free reports, or view my video. If you are considering, “How to help my child feel good about himself?” and would like guidance from a child therapist in NYC, you may chat with me in the chat box, or call me directly at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!