How do we support our children’s self-esteem?

Sep, 17, 2019
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Why is helping our children to develop good self-esteem so important?
Because self-esteem refers to the sense of worth we believe ourselves to have. The feeling that we matter in this world. Self-esteem becomes our children’s navigation system – what determines the choices they make in life – whether they seek out things that confirm their sense of worth – or lack their of. If I believe I am worthy and valued the choices I make in life and the meaning I ascribe to events like loss, change, failure etc will predominantly reflect this belief.

What can happen when our children lack self-esteem? And what might be the cause of this?
When our sense of worth is compromised – we are more likely to seek out company or experiences that confirm this belief; as a teen – getting into friendship groups that are not good for us. Partners or friends who disrespect us or allowing others to take advantage of us.
More recent research suggests that self-esteem acts as a buffer against eating disorders, addiction, risky behaviours during the teen years and mood and anxiety disorders.

Can you also share some things we should look out for to indicate that a child struggles with low self-esteem?
Most of us typically only think of self-esteem as a feeling of not being good enough. Giving up easily, self-loathing, a harsh inner critic and being timid. While this is one aspect of low self-esteem -the underlying feeling of not feeling worthy / enough – is often masked by a boastful exterior. The child who brags, exaggerates, bullies and find it difficult to loose – are often just defences to help ease the pain of not feeling okay (as one is).

Is it just children who struggle with low self-esteem who need this boost, or all children?
I think it is useful to think of self-esteem as a more fluid construct. One that exists on a continuum – not a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ thing.

Boosting a child’s self-esteem merely refers to adopting new ways of relating to that child. And once we come to see what we can rightly do more of – and what we are currently doing that actually stifles a child’s emerging self-esteem – the idea is that we carry on relating in this way. I always tell my clients and attendees of this workshop that what we are doing / teaching is not a technique– but a child view that all children benefit from being met with.

A lot of people think that boosting a child’s self-esteem is about lavishing them with praise. Is this really the case?
For our generation of parents – praise seems to have become synonymous with positive / good parenting. An antidote to nagging and harsher authoritarian parenting styles. And while the intention is always good when we praise our children – the effect is actually the opposite.Excessive praise can make a child deeply insecure. Because if I can be good at something (you are such a good runner) – it follows that I can be bad at it too. The bit that the child will not get to connect with when we only praise – is how it feels to them.

Therefore, while praise has its place – our children benefit far more from acknowledgement.

Rather than responding to your child who says
‘Mummy look at me’ while on the swing – with a ‘Wow you’re so good at swinging’.
A more appropriate response would be
‘Wow you are swinging high – what can you see from up there?’ / or simply ‘I see you honey’.

What the child is asking for in this instance is not praise – but for you to witness their experience – for you to merely see them. This goes for most everything they do that they wish to share with us; art work, homework, running and climbing.

The more we can support our child to become inner directed – having a stronger sense of self – the less governed they will be by outer direction – what the world thinks of them and wants of them. Stress, later on in life – is often a result of too much people pleasing and emphasis on honouring others’ standards and expectations.
It divorces us from ourselves.

So what does a parent boosting a child’s self-esteem look like?
More acknowledgement (more I see you) rather than praise.
When commenting the child’s report card – rather than immediately deeming it good / bad – ask the child. What do you think/ feel? Are you proud? Don’t forget the child’s perspective; what matters is how we allow our child to measure themselves against their own standards – rather than ours only.

Criticising, comparing and shaming – are all robbers of self-esteem. When we      adopt that tone – which is easily done when we are stressed and need things done NOW – our children hear; ‘I’m no good’ / ‘I’m the problem’.

Getting the balance right between praise, boundaries and support can be a tricky balance to achieve. How do we know if we’re getting it right?
This is a daily balance to strike. 
The parenting world is full of mean terms for helpful parents; helicopter / curling / snowflake parents – and I think it is not very helpful to label anyone. Especially when we are all doing the best we can and come from the best intentions.

It is my experience that children meet the world how they’ve been met. Children who have felt supported and appreciated will show behave in ways that reflect this – and likely offer the same to those around them.What makes a child resilient – another word for what we are talking about – is not tough love.

Resilience is borne out of knowing that you are not alone. That you have support, love and empathy to fall back on whenever you tried and failed. This does not mean that your every road block has been removed for you – because your parents feared that you couldn’t deal with it – but that when you tried your best and failed – you are not alone. This makes children want to become independent and makes them emotionally resilient. It communicates; I believe in you.

Boundaries are not an antidote to loving parenting. Boundaries are loving too and meant to keep us safe. It is hard to be encouraging and supportive if we do not feel free to say no to our child too. The more free we feel to set boundaries in a kind way – the bigger the yes we can give our child too.

What are a couple of ways parents can boost their child’s self-esteem?

-Praising effort more than results.

-Letting them play. And be alone. Alone – is not synonymous with lonely. It is in this uninterrupted space that they come to know themselves more intimately.

In short:
Self-esteem is not a fixed or predetermined from birth. As parents we have power to influence our children in so many wonderful ways – simply through meeting them with faith in their innate ability to cope and do their best – and by not over scheduling them.The more we meet our children with faith in their innate competences and good intentions – the more we communicate to them that they are already enough. That they matter and that they need not do / achieve anything to earn our love or feel that they add value.


Louise Hoffmann Brooks

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