Parents know that high self-esteem is a good thing, but they may not know exactly what this trait is or how to help their kids acquire it.
What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem refers to a person’s assessment of him or herself. High self-esteem indicates that a person has made an overall positive assessment of him or herself, whereas low self-esteem means that the person has an overall low opinion of him or herself. Unlike “confidence,” self-esteem is a global measurement – an assessment that sums the person up. It is the conclusion a person makes after examining all of his or her positive and negative traits and skills. “Confidence” on the other hand, varies according to the specific trait or skill being measured. For instance, a person may be a confident driver but an insecure public speaker. However, if public speaking is very important to that person, then doing poorly in this area may lower that person’s overall assessment of him or herself, resulting in low self-esteem.
Why is High Positive Self-Esteem Important?
Positive self-esteem correlates highly with happiness and life satisfaction. It enables people to bounce back more quickly after rejection, failure and other challenging experiences. It reduces their overall stress level by helping them to feel whole and good under a wide range of circumstances. High self-esteem makes people feel stronger, more confident and more optimistic, allowing them to take more risks and thereby achieve greater levels of success. Those with high self-esteem are less dependent on outside approval; they are able to live their lives with less fear and more freedom.
Low self-esteem is linked with many mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. People with low self-esteem are also more likely to be victimized than those with a healthy self-esteem. This is because those with negative self-esteem are prone to both accepting abuse as their due, and believing that they are helpless in fighting bullies and victimizers.
How Does a Child Acquire High Self-Esteem?
A person’s self-esteem is a product of many things. Just as low self-esteem is linked to disorders of mood and anxiety, disorders of mood and anxiety are linked to low self-esteem. This means that the biology underlying certain mental health disorders also generates feelings and attitudes about the self. For instance, depressed people tend to view life negatively and they also tend to view themselves negatively. This has nothing to do with their life experience. It is caused by the chemistry of depression itself. The negative view on life and on oneself is, in this case, inherited genetically.
However, self-esteem is not only a product of biology. Life experiences can also lower or raise self-esteem.
For instance, parenting style influences self-esteem because young kids look up to their parents for clues regarding their worth and value. Positive feedback helps build positive self-assessments. Kids who feel loved by their parents tend to develop more positive self-esteem because they internalize the message that they are worthy of love, and therefore must be inherently good. Kids who experience neglect or abuse tend to develop low self-esteem since their parents’ behavior reflects back to them the message that they are flawed or inherently bad. Calling children names (like “bad,” “stupid,” “lazy,” etc.) lowers their self-esteem since children tend to believe the parent’s judgment and internalize it as their own. Not only parents, but all other people, have the ability to impact on one’s self-esteem. Peers, for example, also affect self-esteem. Being rejected or bullied for a significant period of time can leave a child very down on himself (as well as traumatized). Teachers are also in a position to positively or negatively influence a child’s self-esteem. Other life experiences like academic performance, experiences on sports teams or in extra-curricular activities and experiences with first jobs, all impact on self-esteem. Children who do poorly in school, for instance, often suffer low self-esteem since twenty years of academic mediocrity or worse gives them a low opinion of their capabilities.
Because personal performance strongly affects self-esteem, it is most helpful if parents can provide opportunities for their children to experience success. Exposing them to a wide range of activities (like lessons or practice in sports, dance, art, cooking, crafts, hobbies, paid employment, household responsibilities and so on) gives them the chance to explore their talents and aptitudes. The less a child does, the less he or she can succeed. This inhibits the growth of self-esteem. Thus “over-protection” and excessive “helping” can actually interfere with the growth of a child’s self-esteem. On the other hand, offering the child many opportunities to overcome challenges, learn new skills, engage in independent functioning and express personal talents helps the child develop high self-esteem. A child who can do many things in many different areas of life acquires the kind of positive self-image and confidence that contributes to high self-esteem. Remember, you can’t build a child’s self-esteem by telling him or her that he or she is just “great” or smart, or beautiful. Rather, you can help the child discover his or her own strengths by providing opportunities for the child to EXPERIENCE those strengths through personal accomplishment.
How to Help Your Child Acquire High Self-Esteem
From the above, we can see that parents can do many things to help their child acquire high self-esteem. For instance, parents can:
- Be generous with positive feedback and praise
- Show acceptance, understanding, warmth and affection
- Avoid anger, criticism, insult and abuse
- Give the child the oppurtunity to learn skills in as many areas as possible, such as; self-care, money management, cooking, independent travel, sports, crafts, music/dance/other creative and/or performing arts, martial arts/gymnastics/yoga, sewing, computer literacy and more
- Help your child develop social skills, fashion know-how, leadership skills, assertiveness skills and other skills that will help him or her to maintain positive social relationships and reduce the chances of being bullied, victimized, marginalized or ostracized – all of which can lower self-esteem
Build Security Through Acceptance of Inner Feelings
Another way to increase security and self-esteem is to help the child make friends with himself. Using Emotional Coaching (the naming of the child’s feelings) shows acceptance of the child’s inner world. This helps the child become more accepting of himself (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for further information about Emotional Coaching). When a parent calmly names a child’s feelings (i.e. “You don’t like the way you look? That must make you feel sad.” as opposed to “What do you mean you don’t like the way you look? You look beautiful!”), the child actually learns to be more accepting of all of his own emotions. Extensive research has shown that accepting even our most negative feelings has the result of building our confidence and inner security! It’s as if the parent is saying to the child: “I can handle whatever emotions you have without becoming overwhelmed or frightened.” This unspoken message gives the child the confidence to be fully himself.
The opposite approach – making a child feel that he’s got the wrong emotions – has the effect of of making him feel more secure. It’s as if the parents are saying (and some parents actually say this) “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Of course, parents say it in more subtle ways like, “You needn’t be afraid; there’s nothing to be afraid of; there’s no need to be upset; you shouldn’t be mad; there’s no cause for sadness; it’s not true that kids don’t like you; it’s not true that you’re fat,” and so on and so forth. All of these well-intentioned statements are actually DISCOUNTS of the child’s own experience. The child IS afraid or upset or mad or sad or he DOES feel that no one likes him or he’s fat and so forth. When a parent effectively tells a child that he’s feeling the wrong way, the child loses touch with his inner experience, his own truth. This makes him more insecure and less self-confident.
Address Biological Factors
When low self-esteem is caused by biological factors, parents can consider helping their child with Bach Flower Therapy (see articles on this site for detailed explanations of Bach Flower Therapy). You can meet with a Bach Flower Practitioner for an individualized assessment and treatment bottle, or consider the following remedies:
- Cerato – for the child who doesn’t trust his/her own judgment
- Larch – for the child who feels inadequate compared to others
- Pine – for the child who is hard on him/herself, feels guilty or worthless
- Centaury – for the child who has trouble standing up for him/herself
- Holly – for the child who is insecure and easily insulted
Bach Remedies are available at health food stores and on-line. Put two drops of the remedy in any hot or cold liquid, four times a day until there is so much improvement in the child’s self-esteem that you forget to give the remedy! Remedies can also be mixed together in a Bach Mixing Bottle filled with water. In this case, give four drops in liquid, four times a day. Ideally, the child takes his drops in the morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening.
If a child’s self-esteem is negatively affecting his or her functioning at home, with friends or at school, or it is causing the child real distress, the child may benefit from medical assessment and treatment. Medical intervention can increase self-esteem when self-esteem is lowered by chemical factors.
Seek Professional Help
Suffering from insecurity and low self-esteem is painful. If, despite your parenting efforts, your child is burdened with these kinds of feelings, consider accessing professional help. A good child psychologist can use specialized strategies to help a child move into greater self-acceptance and confidence. The positive effects can last a lifetime.