Raising children is very challenging. It is one of the toughest jobs in the world. Our children are born and suddenly we are thrust into the great adventure and challenge of rearing them. Since no one trains us how to do it, most of us fly by the seat of our pants in doing so, filled with great intentions and expectations. We love our children with a depth that is unfathomable. We do all we can for them. However, even with the deepest love and best of intentions, we invariably blunder and make mistakes along the way. Yet, we all desire children who grow to be adults filled with self-esteem, and who live a fulfilling life.
Self-esteem is the feeling we have regarding our own intrinsic self value. A person imbued with self-esteem experiences a sense of worthiness, competence, confidence, lovability and naturally expects positive regard from others. They believe in themselves and in what they have to offer.
Those suffering from low self-esteem view themselves in a negative light. They often feel they lack valuable attributes and experience the emotions of shame, defeat, and inadequacy. They are unsure of their contributions and generally live unfulfilled lives. A person may feel good about themselves in one area, such as in their musical abilities, but they may feel lacking in others ways, such as their social skills. That is not a lack of self-esteem, which is a more foundational attitude about one’s self that is beyond any attributes or traits. People with high self-esteem can accept that they are good in some things and not in others. They can withstand situations of failure or adversity and move on without feeling defeated because their basic sense of self is positive and strong. That is how we want our children to be.
Our children’s self-esteem first develops during childhood in direct relation to how we genuinely feel about them and how we interact with them. Children are innocent, unformed, open and susceptible to the impressions of the world around them. We, as their primary role models are the most powerful influences in shaping their self-esteem. Every day and in countless ways our children take in, imitate and react to our interactions with them and in doing so their sense of self is formed. A child given love and praise internalizes that love and feels worthwhile. A child who is criticized and treated impatiently will feel that they are inherently bad. A child who is treated angrily will become fearful and lack confidence. A child of a depressed parent might feel it is their fault that the parent is not happy and end up feeling inadequate.
Our children absorb us deeply and develop self images, based on how we treat them, that become imprinted in their psyches for their lifetime. These imprints become the emotional blueprint of patterns of behavior that will be repeated well into their adulthood. For example, the child who felt inadequate around their parent’s depression might find a depressed mate in which their sense of inadequacy lives on. The child who was overly criticized can internalize the critical parent and feel that they never measure up. Or, they might imitate their parent and become critical of their own children or, involve themselves in relationships where they are criticized. The child who is emotionally supported and loved will grow into a loving adult who finds mutually nurturing and loving relationships that care for him as his parents did.
Although, much of what transpires between a parent and child is not conscious, there are three important things to keep in mind in order to raise your child with self-esteem:
Children need your love in order to feel worthwhile; it is the basic building block of self-esteem. Your love is a unique energy that emanates from your being into your children, nourishing them. Babies thrive on it and when it is not present they wither and become incapable of bonding with others. Your child needs love, intimacy and connection with you in order to develop self-esteem, which does not come from just feeding and clothing them. Building self-esteem is something that requires your action, energy and conscious intent.
Unfortunately, modern life (and its stresses) does not facilitate bonding with our children. Often, two tired parents come home from work, rush to get dinner on the table and then everyone retreats into their own space. Kids are on their computers, video chatting and texting. Parents are either relaxing in front of the TV, on their own computers or catching up on chores. What is missing is the connected feeling of sharing and doing things together with your child. If your child does not bond with you daily in a solid way, he or she may fill the emotional void with friends, television, magazines, the Internet and the current culture, all of which is transient, fleeting and does not provide the solid foundation needed for self-esteem.
Showing love means being present for your child, fully paying undivided attention to them and not becoming distracted with other things. Your child will intuitively sense your presence and feel secure. Even a stay-at-home mom who is self-involved or preoccupied will not impart secure feelings to her child.
Presence is attention that includes care, time and unconditional love. An important way to be present is to initiate conversations with your child and take in what they say. Ask them about how they felt about what happened during their day so they can express their emotions. If something upset them don’t belittle them or make it okay by saying such things as, “Don’t be upset about Jeff teasing you. Remember ‘sticks and stones etc….’” Denying their feelings will make your child’s self-esteem diminish. Acknowledge them instead by saying such things as, “of course it hurt your feelings when Jeff teased you.”
Here is an Eidetic Image exercise you can do to see how your child feels about himself. An Eidetic Image is a visual picture stored in the brain of all of your life experiences. It reproduces life events with clarity and exact detail and information that is not consciously available is revealed. Eidetic Imagery was first developed by Dr. Akhter Ahsen, the leading theoretician of the School of Eidetic Image psychology.
Begin the exercise by seeing your child in your mind’s eye wherever the image spontaneously takes you. You may keep your eyes open or closed and allow the information to come to you.
- See your child somewhere in your house.
- Where is he/she?
- What is your child doing?
- Notice his/her mood, actions. What do you see?
- How do you feel as you see them?
- Look into your child’s eyes. There is a feeling or story there.
- What do you see?
- Is there anything you spontaneously feel like doing?
Pamela, mother of a six-year-old boy, visualized her son in the family room watching TV. Upon closer examination, she saw him as feeling very sad and withdrawn. She said, “I see that something is worrying him or he is feeling badly. He had wanted something and he was told no. He has his head down and is sad. He feels like he has not been heard and that his dad and I don’t understand him. I feel very sad for him and want to hug him to make him feel better. I did not know he felt misunderstood.” When looking into his eyes, she said, “He feels that we are always so busy or distracted. We don’t know he is around or we don’t see him. His heart feels heavy. I see that he needs to share. He needs to talk to express himself, there is much to give and much to say within him and he does not feel that he has the chance or that anyone will take the time to really listen to him.
I see that he needs people to listen and talk to him. He needs a stronger sense of bonding.”
Once their feelings are validated, you can help your child devise useful strategies to solve their problems, and in doing so their willingness to share more things with you grows. Share stories about your own childhood and things that you did while growing up. Your stories enrich them as they learn valuable lessons from your experiences. When you are present for your child, he or she feels important and that you care; and this is fundamental to their esteem.
Praise Your Children
We often get caught up in repeatedly telling our children what not to do and point out their negative behaviors. “Don’t pick fights with your brother” or “How many times do I have to ask you to feed the dog?” Too much focus on their negative conduct creates a harmful self-image in your child. Try to tell them to do things in a more positive manner.
For example, “Your brother looks up to you. He wants to be just like you. I know you can teach him how to share”. Instead of yelling to feed the dog, tell your child, “I need you to feed the dog right now. I so appreciate your help.” Being positive encourages more willing cooperation and raises self-esteem.
Praise your child for what you observe to be their authentic positive qualities. In this manner, your child will recognize his or her own unique abilities and they will feel good about themselves. Employ comments such as, “You are very kind. I see how you treat your baby brother with such love”; that allows your child to recognize their inherent lovability. Or, “You have a keen eye. I love the colors you picked for your drawing”, makes your child realize they have creative and perceptual gifts. False praise such as, “You are as good an actor as anyone trying out for the school play” when they are not, will make your child distrust you. They know when you are being disingenuous; and false compliments will only make their sense of inadequacy stronger.
Discipline is necessary for children to learn acceptable behaviors, cooperation with others, and self control. Too much or too little discipline is experienced as a loss by your child and injures their self-esteem. Too much discipline can make your child feel over-controlled, leading to anger, rebellion and suppression of their natural expressions. With minimal discipline your child will not learn proper ways to interact with others and can suffer from a loss of absorbing important life values. Parents who establish limits give their child a feeling of security, which enhances their self-esteem. Your child might test the limits you establish with them, but they do need those limits to grow into responsible adults.
Establishing behavioral rules helps kids understand your expectations and develop self-control. Setting limits makes them feel safe. Some of your rules might be: no texting or TV until homework is done, and no name-calling, hitting or teasing. Help with chores is also part of teaching your child discipline and you can establish these according to their age. For example, young children can help clear the table while older children can take the garbage out.