The most important thing to remember about young people’s self-esteem is that healthy self-esteem is less about self-confidence than it is about self-accuracy. As a psychologist who works with children at Toronto’s Medcan clinic, I find that over-confidence can create as many self-esteem problems as under-confidence. So how does a parent provide children with a healthy sense of their strengths and weaknesses? Following are eight ideas I’ve used myself.
- One of my clients recently was devastated because a friend had called her a “loser.” Parents can help their children deal with such insults by modeling the healthy cognitive process that prevent an insult from developing into an internal esteem issue. At the dinner table, recount examples of times that someone insulted you—and then express how you dealt with them. “My friend said I was selfish today,” you might say. “That made me feel sad—until I remembered that I was going to help out with the school assembly. That’s not selfish behaviour. I think my friend was wrong.”
- Parents can help their child’s self-esteem by encouraging them to get involved in a pursuit that rewards effort. That can be anything from a sport like soccer or swimming, to learning a musical instrument, or training in dance or the arts.
- Often, parents will be called on to evaluate a child’s performance in a game or a musical recital. In such situations, praise the effort that created the results, rather than the results themselves. “I love how hard you worked on this picture” is better than, “Wow, your picture is the best!”
- Provide your kids with the tools to cheer themselves up by expressing what you do to cheer up yourself. “Boy, work was pretty tough today—a project I’d worked on for a long time was cancelled, and that makes me feel lousy,” you might say. “When I feel sad I try to do something that makes me feel good. I love walking with you—want to go for a walk with me?”
- Celebrate achievements, such as excellent test scores or weekends where the child came home before curfew both nights. One effective way to do that is to create a success box. Everytime the child achieves something, write it down on a slip of paper and put the paper in the box. Then when the child is feeling low, encourage her to open the box and go through the paper slips.
- Having a clear and realistic sense of strengths and weaknesses is integral to the development of healthy self-esteem. This is important on both sides—a child who has trouble confronting his own weaknesses can also have trouble empathizing in situations when others have problems. With some kids I draw up a list of strengths and weaknesses. This list also can be used to direct the child into pursuits suited to her skillset.
- One of the trickiest self-esteem issues involves confronting actual weaknesses, such as instances where a child isn’t as physically strong, coordinated or tall as other friends—which can be particularly tough when those friends love to play such athletic sports as basketball or football. In such situations the best thing to do is to encourage the child to accept his or her limitations. Be realistic. “No, you’re right, you’re not as strong as your teammates, and I can see how that can be tough,” you might say. “But you’re a wonderful artist.”
- When it comes to emotions, self-esteem means understanding thoughts and feelings—and how to manage them. Younger children in particular can have difficulty identifying the complex maelstrom of emotion they experience. Identifying the emotion for the child helps the child understand what he’s experiencing, making it more likely that he’ll be able to deal with it next time. “You’re feeling angry right now,” you might say. “Sometimes I feel angry, too—and when I do, I take some time to myself until I feel better.”
Most children face self-esteem issues at some point in their lives. Understanding parents who model the thought processes that lead to healthy self-esteem can nudge a child toward healthier spirits. Try to sandwich any criticism between two compliments, and always separate the person from the behaviour—the criticism should apply to the action, rather than the person. And if all else fails, consider consulting a professional—there’s nothing like a conversation with an impartial observer to prompt a new outlook.