By: Kerry Acheson
Self-esteem refers to how much worth or value we perceive ourselves to have. It, therefore, includes one’s self-image, and the ways in which we evaluate ourselves. We cannot directly observe another person’s self-esteem, but we can pick up indicators of low self-esteem. For instance, the child who tends to put themselves down verbally, doesn’t seem confident enough to participate socially, or who gives up on tasks very easily, may be struggling with low self-esteem. Children who persistently act out behaviourally, may be acting in accordance with a belief that they are bad.
Self-esteem is important for a number of reasons. Shirk et al suggest that low self-esteem can be associated with problems such as depression, behaviour problems, learning problems and anxiety. Furthermore, it can also lead to substance abuse, eating disorders and relationship problems later on in life. On the corollary, high self-esteem can be a buffer and can assist in preventing psychological problems in later life. Kids with higher self-esteem are able to overcome and manage life stressors more easily.
Although we experience self-esteem on an individual level, we cannot separate it from our socio-cultural context. For instance, society often defines worth in terms of achievements. Differences and disabilities are often harshly judged and rejected. Girls may be more often expected to refrain from expressing anger, and in this way, they can be constrained from expressing their authentic voice. Boys may receive the message from society that it’s not okay to express vulnerability. All of these factors affect how children come to view themselves. Parenting styles also play a strong role in determining a child’s self-esteem. Obviously, experiences of abuse or neglect threaten healthy self-esteem development. Furthermore, parents should work on strengthening their own sense of self-worth, so that they can model this for their children. Parents should do their best to avoid being overly intrusive; perfectionistic; harsh or critical with their children. Therefore, when it comes to issues of self-esteem, we have to address both the social context, as well as individual factors. Children need to experience an adequately safe, stimulating and loving environment. They also need to process and interpret their experiences in self-esteem affirming ways.
STRENGTHENING SELF-ESTEEM IN CHILDREN
- Children need to be shown that they are liked, loved, understood and enjoyed. Use active listening, and convey empathy to what they share with you. Instil a sense that their thoughts, feelings and opinions are valued. Use praise liberally, while being specific and authentic. Be in the habit of focusing more on the positives than on negatives. When disapproving of a child’s behaviour, never criticise their personality or character. Take an interest in the child’s interests. Spend time, lavish attention and affection.
- Support healthy ways of thinking. Shirk et al point out that children should be guided to set realistic goals for themselves, and to avoid setting rigid and excessive standards for themselves. They should be discouraged from fixating on their flaws to the exclusion of their strengths. They should also be guided to appreciate multiple aspects of their identity rather than to fixate on one area.
- Promote positive self-talk. Children should be taught the link between thoughts and feelings, and between words and feelings. This enables them to be aware that how they think about themselves and how they speak to themselves will determine certain feelings. Kids should be taught that using thoughts that ‘bully’ themselves (eg name-calling), is unfair to themselves. They can be guided to identify the effects of negative self-talk, and also to actively take on positive self-talk affirmations.
- Foster experiences of social success. Foster a sense of family pride, that they experience a secure sense of belonging and togetherness. Teach social skills, and intervene with negative social roles that may have been taken up. Provide constructive experiences where children can participate in social activities successfully. Structure activities so that children feel included and have a sense of social success. Encourage kids to participate in a sport or a drama club, or to volunteer for a charity event. Give kids a special helping role at home or in the classroom.
- Teach children how to protect their self-esteem when they don’t reach their goals. Emphasise that a person’s self-worth does not depend on what they achieve, but on who they are. Remind them of other areas in which they experience success. Strongly communicate that doing their best, and having the courage to try, is much more important than winning. Always emphasise what IS in their control. Be more proud of an excellent attitude and effort than of the outcome, which is out of their control. Let them know repeatedly that nobody is perfect, that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s ok to make mistakes.
- Foster a sense of competency and autonomy. Having a sense of agency and power promotes self-esteem. Give choices wherever possible and encourage creative problem-solving. Do present a clear structure and boundaries, but with age-appropriate and realistic expectations. Offer guidance and protection but only as far as is needed – affirm the child’s areas of independence.
- It can be beneficial to consult a therapist if concerns about self-esteem don’t alleviate
- Shirk, Burwell & Susan Harter: “Strategies to Modify Low Self-Esteem in Adolescents” in Reinecke, Dattilio & Freeman, Cognitive Therapy with Children and Adolescents, 3rd edition.
- Schaefer &Millman, How to Help Children with Common Problems
- Faber & Mazlish, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk