Buillding self esteem: Dr Harry Barry on the common mistake parents are making

Forget about building your child’s self-esteem, “it’s for the birds”, says Dr Harry Barry.

The Co Louth doctor, who has written numerous bestselling books on mental health, says praising children to the sky and beyond is counterproductive.

“What are we saying to our young people? ‘You are marvellous, you’re fantastic’.Then if they fail they feel they are a failure — because they didn’t succeed. Never praise the child, just praise the effort.”

Taking up from where American psychologist Albert Ellis left off 30 years ago, he believes it is far more important to focus on unconditional self-acceptance, while taking full responsibility for our behaviour.

“It’s a revolutionary approach to mental health,” he says.

For example, if I fail I am not a failure, I simply failed at a task. The only failure in life is not getting back up again. Now there is resilience in practice

A father of three adult children, he retired last year from general practice but finds himself as busy as ever, “doing what I tell others not to”.

Self-Acceptance, Dr Harry Barry, Orion Books, €16.99

What shape are you in?

I try to get out and walk for 30 minutes a day. I like a good walk by the sea or woods. Golf is also very important. I aim to go twice a week. I’ve done that for most of my adult life. It’s a wonderful exercise and there’s a social element too.

What are your healthiest eating habits?

I try to be as careful as I can. I like stir-fries — prawn or chicken. My wife Brenda is a marvellous cook. I do the barbecues. I love fish — hake, cod, salmon — we have it two to three days a week. Once a week, I treat myself to a steak.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

On occasion, a bag of crisps. Every now and then my daughter might bring Butler’s white chocolate — never dark because I suffer from migraines. And a glass of prosecco. For the same reason, I don’t drink red wine. My migraines have gotten better over the years. Thankfully, as you get older your arteries harden.

What would keep you awake at night?

Probably if I had a patient I was worried about. Or, a situation I was worried about. It wouldn’t be that common. Or if there was something wrong with one of the kids.

How do you relax?

Golfing, walking and I love the sea. My idea of really escaping is to spend a week in the Burren and heading out with a picnic. Also, I love reading — crime, fiction, thrillers. For non-fiction, I enjoy neuroscience and cosmology.

Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?

My dear wife, Brenda, then a mixture of a neuroscientist like Richard Davisons, a cosmologist like Brian Cox, Padraig Harrington for a bit of fun and Fr Brian D’Arcy for the gravitas.

What’s your favourite smell?

The smell of the sea, particularly from the Atlantic. And, during winter, pine in the forest.

What would you like to change about your appearance?

I believe it should be like Shakespeare said: ‘With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come’. We need to celebrate the lines on our faces.

When is the last time you cried?

When an elderly medical missionary, Sister Kieran Saunders, died. We worked together in Tanzania betweeen 1989 and 1991 and were very close. She was unconditional, self-acceptance in motion. When she came back home, she was like another member of the family. I have to admit, I bawled my eyes out. I dedicated my last book to her and at the launch when I talked about her I found myself crying again.

What are the traits you least like in others?

People with no sense of humour — you can’t get through to them. And I can’t stand meanness.

What are the traits you least like in yourself?

At times I get over enthusiastic, maybe overpower people a little, and I have to pare it back. Also, I get frustrated sometimes with very small things.

Do you pray?

I do. I’m a Catholic and a believer. I won’t say I’m a shining example. I still struggle with the whole idea of faith. If you do enough reading about cosmology, biology and neuroscience, it is very challenging.

What would cheer up your day?

Every now and then I have these lovely moments where I’ve helped someone or they write to me and say ‘you have changed my life’. It’s why I continue to do what I do. And Padraig Harrington winning another major.

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