As featured in the Bright Beginnings edition
By Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist, Director of PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre Bedfordview
Self-esteem is the collection of beliefs or feelings that we have about ourselves, or our “self-perceptions.” How we define ourselves influences our motivations, attitudes, and behaviors and affects our emotional adjustment. Patterns of self-esteem start very early in life. For example, when a baby or toddler reaches a milestone, he or she experiences a sense of accomplishment that bolsters self-esteem. Learning to roll over after dozens of unsuccessful attempts or finally mastering getting the spoon into his or her mouth every time he or she eats are experiences that teach a young child a “can do” attitude. The concept of success following persistence starts early. As a child tries, fails, tries again, fails again, and then finally succeeds, he or she is developing ideas about his or her own capabilities. At the same time, he or she is creating a self-concept based on interactions with other people. This is why parental involvement is key to helping a child form accurate, healthy self-perceptions. Self-esteem can also be defined as the combination of feelings of capability with feelings of being loved. A child who is happy with an achievement but does not feel loved may eventually experience low self-esteem. Likewise, a child who feels loved but is hesitant about his or her own abilities can also end up with a low self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem results when the right balance is attained.
Healthy self-esteem is a child’s armor against the challenges of the world. Children who feel good about themselves seem to have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile more readily and enjoy life. These children are realistic and generally optimistic.
In contrast, for children who have low self-esteem, challenges can become sources of major anxiety and frustration. Children who think poorly of themselves have a hard time finding solutions to problems. If they are plagued by self-critical thoughts, such as “I’m no good” or “I can’t do anything right,” they may become passive, withdrawn, or depressed. Faced with a new challenge, their immediate response is “I can’t.”
Children ages six to twelve are developing their identity from family reflections and are not yet evaluating themselves for distinct adolescent or puberty changes. The middle years are an extension of the first six, but focus more intently on autonomy, mastery, and defining who they are from relationships outside the family, such as playmates. Overall acceptance from their playmates and mastery of physical and social skills add to a child’s increasing sense of self. Children ages eight to ten need to be exposed to an adult role model of the same sex. For girls, this is usually easier because most divorced mothers have primary custody and women, such as elementary school teachers generally surround children more. In divorced families there may be fewer options for boys, and it is rare that a distant relative may fulfill this role. If models are not readily available, children may seek out a scout leader, television hero, or same-sex sibling, but it is important to seek out a substitute so the child has an adult model to follow.
The middle years are a time for developing physical, social and academic competence. Parents should become familiar with their child’s activities at school and help them with their homework. Parents should encourage their children to interact socially with other children their age and join activity groups that interest them. Allow children to invite their friends into your home and make them feel welcome. Refrain from assigning too many chores or responsibilities to your child, allowing time for him to spend time with friends and allow his sense of self to grow.
Self-esteem fluctuates as a child grows. It is frequently changed and fine-tuned, because it is affected by a child’s experiences and new perceptions. It helps for parents to be aware of the signs of both healthy and unhealthy self-esteem.
- He/she may not want to try new things
- He/she may frequently speak negatively about his/herself, saying such things as, “I’m stupid,” “I’ll never learn how to do this,” or “Nobody cares about me anyway.”
- He/she may exhibit a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for somebody else to take over
- A sense of pessimism predominates.
- He/she is comfortable in social settings and enjoys group activities as well as independent pursuits
- When challenges arise, he/she is able to work toward finding solutions
- He/she voices discontent without belittling herself or others. For example, rather than saying, “I’m an idiot,” a child with healthy self-esteem says, “I don’t understand this.”
- He/she knows his/her strengths and weaknesses, and accepts them
- A sense of optimism prevails.
How can a parent help to foster healthy self-esteem in a child? Here are some tips that can make a big difference:
- Watch what you say
- Children are very sensitive to parents’ words. Remember to praise your child not only for a job well done, but also for effort. But be truthful. E.g., if your child doesn’t make the soccer team, avoid saying something like, “Well, next time you’ll work harder and make it.” Instead, say, “Well, you didn’t make the team, but I’m really proud of the effort you put into it.” Reward effort and completion instead of outcome.
- Be a positive role model
- If you are excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your child may eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your child will have a great role model.
- Identify and redirect your child’s inaccurate beliefs
- It’s important for parents to identify kids’ irrational beliefs about themselves. Helping your child set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating himself or herself will help your child have a more healthy self-concept. Inaccurate perceptions of self can become reality to a child. E.g., a child who does very well in school but struggles with math may say, “I can’t do math. I’m a bad student.” Encourage your child to see the situation in its true light. A helpful response might be: “You do great in school. Math is just a subject that you need to spend more time on. We’ll work on it together.”
- Be spontaneous and affectionate with your child
- Your love will go a long way to boost your child’s self-esteem. Give your child hugs. Tell your child you’re proud of him or her. Leave a note in your child’s lunch box that reads, “I think you’re terrific!” Give praise frequently and honestly, without overdoing it.
- Give positive, accurate feedback
- A comment such as, “You always work yourself up into such a frenzy!” will cause a child to start believing he or she has no control over his or her outbursts. A better statement is, “You were really mad at your brother. But I appreciate that you didn’t yell at him or hit him.” This acknowledges your child’s feelings and rewards the choice that your child made, encouraging your child to make the right choice again next time.
- Create a safe, nurturing home environment
- A child who is exposed to parents who fight and argue repeatedly may become depressed and withdrawn. Always remember to respect your child.
- Make your home a safe haven for your family
- Watch for signs of abuse by others, problems in school, trouble with peers, and other potential factors that may affect your child’s self-esteem. Deal with these issues sensitively but swiftly.
- Help your child become involved in constructive experiences
- Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem. E.g., mentoring programs in which an older child helps a younger one learn to read can do wonders for both children.
If you or your child is struggling with a low self-esteem and is impacting negatively on your and/or your child’s life, please contact PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre, Bedfordview, JHB on 011-4503576 to learn to empower yourself and your child.