by Sheryl A. Isaacs, MS
Child Therapist and Family Therapist
Many families desire to help children have healthy self-esteem but parents can have a difficult time with this. Some parents are afraid to praise their children too much. They worry that their child will “get a big head,” get “too big for their britches,” or believe that they can not be humble if praised too often. How can children be praised in a way that will increase their self-esteem without inflating their ego so they think of themselves better than others? This is a question that plagues many parents.
It is important to praise children for effort not results. As parents, we need to recognize the hard work that children engage in. Things do not need to be perfect to praise children. You can start by describing what you see. Let’s say that your child was supposed to pick up their room. What does the room look like? Did the child make the bed, put books on the shelf or put their clothes away? Tell them, “I like the way that you put all your clothes away in your drawers.” Be specific about what you see. Tell them how you feel. Are you proud of them, happy that they listened the first time? Label the behavior that you are praising. Were they diligent, hard working or have good listening skills?
For children to thrive it is important that they are taught to express their feelings in a healthy way. When children are able to control their emotions and express their feelings they feel in control of themselves. This feeling of being in control of ones emotions fosters positive self-esteem in children.
Children need their feelings acknowledged. They need our help in building their “feelings vocabulary.” We can do this by helping them label their feelings. If they are mad let them express it verbally. Help them put words to the anger, “Sounds like you are so mad you would like to ______________.”
When we don't recognize or acknowledge a child's feelings they begin to think that they can not trust their own feelings. We inadvertently create an alternate reality for our children by not acknowledging their feelings. Some of the common things that are said to children are, "You can't be tired you just had a nap," "You really aren't hot" or "You aren't hungry you just ate." Children can begin to doubt their reality and their feelings. This will have a negative impact in their self-esteem.
Children are in need of undivided attention. They need to experience our full attention. Stop what you are doing and focus on them. Get down to their level and look them in the eyes. When we take time out to engage with children we are sending them the message that they are important to us. When we listen intently to their stories and ideas we are helping them understand that they are interesting and worth listening to. We also teach important social skills that will help children have social competence in social settings.
Children need to be respected. Parenting is frustrating at times. It is difficult to not become angry at times. We must take care that when we discipline that we talk to our children in a respectful manner. A good thing to remember is this question: Would you treat another person in the manner that you treat your child? We don't commonly shame, slap, push or yell at others in our lives. These behaviors, when directed at children, can create negative labels that children will carry with them all their life. These labels turn into a negative internal dialogue that keeps a child bound in low self-esteem.
Children are in need of autonomy to increase their level of self-esteem. Children need to make appropriate choices. Let children choose what clothes they would like to wear, allow choices for snack, free time and other appropriate developmental choices. By allowing a child to make choices we are showing them that we trust them to make the good decisions. This will teach children to trust their choices in life and develop their own sense of self. When we neglect to foster our child's autonomy we are setting them up to be indecisive, anxious and overly dependent on others.
It is important that children struggle some. We can not swoop in every time our child experiences some difficulty. Many times as parents our first instinct is to help our child. We want to “save” them from the struggle or perhaps we are too busy and can not wait for them while they struggle. When a child struggles and is able to complete the task at hand they gain a sense of mastery that allows them the knowledge that they are capable and competent beings. As children grow they must know this or they will stifle themselves and not try new things or seek out challenges.
Children need to have time to just “be.” Time to play uninterrupted without us rushing in to structure their time or monopolize their play. Allow your child to be engrossed in their play without interrupting the flow of their play. Too many children today are structured so closely that they are not able to use their imaginations in play. Free play is relaxing for children. It allows creativity to grow and blossom. Developmentally children need free play.
Encourage children to have a wide network of extended family and friends. Increase their world experiences outside of the home. When children have a wide base of support it helps them to see that they are important and loved by others. Interacting with others can increase their skill set in many areas and help foster a feeling of competence.
Our children will face many things as they grow. They will experience hurt and disappointment, injury and illness and loss. By helping your child to have a strong sense of self and healthy self-esteem you can prepare them to weather the storms of life. Children that have a higher level of self-esteem are better equipped to make and keep positive friendships and work through difficult situations that they face.