Last week I arrived home to an extremely jubilant six-year-old girl. She was more excited than my pocket of empty calories normally provokes.
I knew there was something afoot. ‘Dad, I’m running for the student council’.
At first I was a little shocked that I am old enough to have a daughter interested in such pursuits.
Then I began to congratulate myself for rearing a child concerned with stewardship and the plight of the ordinary student. However, my wife’s expression revealed she was further along in the thinking process than I was.
Her eyes bounced back, ‘well, you’re the psychotherapist — how do we manage this potential disappointment?’
All the next morning, reaching perhaps the nadir of my parenting life, I waited for my phone to ping to reveal the outcome of the local Educate Together student council election.
Of course, my training as a systemic family psychotherapist does not allow me to experience moments like these without trawling through the minutia of what this event was bringing up for me and why I was having such a strong reaction to it.
And even though the meaning of it all has yet to fully reveal itself, I knew I was concerned for the possible dent to my daughter’s self-esteem.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is one of those rare intangible and unquantifiable aspects of the human condition.
It is nearly easier not to see than to see. And, as parents, it can often leave us mystified as how to promote and nurture it within our children. As a schoolteacher working with adolescents over the last 15 years, talking about self-esteem is one of the most recurring conversations I have with parents about their child.
Yet I have often found myself struggling for the correct language to express what exactly it is I am trying to say. Low self-esteem or poor view of self can have a devastating impact on a child that can last a lifetime.
And lead them into a series of destructive relationships. Murray Bowen believed children who cannot separate their own intellectual and emotional functioning from the family develop what he called ‘low differentiation of self’.
Such children constantly seek the approval and acceptance of others and often either conform themselves to please others or attempt to force others to conform to them.
He suggested that those presenting with ‘low differentiation of self’ often seek out people who have a similar poor view of self and therefore enter into relationships in adulthood that are destructive and doomed before they begin.
So developing your child’s view of self and their place in the world which allows them to have independent thoughts from the family system is one of the most significant and challenging endeavours a parent can be engaged in.
5 tips to build your child’s self-esteem:
- Reward failure as well as success. Children can often become caught in the pursuit of perfection in order to please a parent. It is very satisfying for a child when they are rewarded for winning or succeeding at something. But what happens when they are not successful? Children must learn that losing or not being the best is an important part of learning. If the message is given that failure is not acceptable, children will never fully enjoy the pursuit.
- Treat each child individually. When parents tell their children they love them the same, this can cause competition among siblings as they vie for their parent’s love and attention. What I often tell my daughters is that I love them the same amount but differently. This removes the competitive nature of my love and allows the children to enjoy the uniqueness of each relationship.
- Allow your child to have a say in family matters. When we exclude children from decision-making we are implicitly telling them their opinion does not matter. We all want children that value themselves and believe they have something valuable to offer the world. Childhood is the time to reinforce that their opinion does count and is valued. Something as arbitrary as allowing your child to decide what you do on Sunday can significantly impact on a child’s sense of self-worth.
- Praise the uniqueness of your child’s strengths. There is something inherently Irish about the way we seem to be more focused on what we can’t do than what we can do. Children, in particular, gauge themselves by comparing their skills to their peers. As parents, we need to shift that negative focus and help them to see the positive aspects of themselves.
- Be by your child’s side, not on it. There is a lot in this simple phrase that can impact positively on your child’s self-esteem. We must allow our children to succeed as well as to fail. When we become overly identified with our child’s perceived slight or failing, we can often model co-dependency or create Bowen’s low differentiation of self.
Developing your child’s self-esteem is a lifelong task and something that challenges all of us as parents. It certainly concerned me last week; thankfully my phone did ping: ‘got it!’
Be by your child’s side, not on it. Reward failure.