Building Self Esteem


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Q: How can I increase my 9-year-old son’s self-esteem?

A: As parents, we try to protect our children from harm. We warn them about playing too close to the busy road, supervise them when they cook over the stove, scold them for riding their bike without a helmet and remind them that too many sweets will give them an upset tummy. Our concerns and cautious responses are natural.

But sometimes our tendency to protect can actually hinder our children’s emotional development when it comes to their self-esteem. We may have the incorrect notion that a healthy self-esteem comes when we, as parents, protect our children from seeing anything in their lives or personalities as negative and instead focus only on what’s right in our children’s world and admit to only the good in their personalities.

The progression and development of self-esteem
In reality, self-esteem develops through self-evaluation of both the negative and positive aspects of our lives. It comes from clearly understanding that there are things at which we excel and things at which we fail, aspects of our personality that are really great and other things we kind of hate. For children, gaining self-esteem is how they develop their own personal self.

With younger children, self-esteem is fairly simple. At early ages, children have an innocent belief that they are good at most things. As they enter elementary school, they learn that they are unique and different from everyone else. They start to recognize they have certain talents and skills and other kids have strengths of their own. The job of a parent is to support children in the things they do well and help them understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and that they as individuals are not all good or bad.

As kids reach middle school, self-esteem becomes a little more complicated. Quite honestly, most middle-school students have low self-esteem — a result of ongoing comparison. That’s right, around the magic age of 11 or 12, kids start evaluating themselves based on their circle of peers. This comparison game typically results in one of two outcomes: “Wow, everyone’s better than me!” or “Hey, I’m at least as good as or maybe even better than everyone else!”

Recognizing the cycle of failure
It becomes pretty clear at this point which way a child is going. Kids on the low-self-esteem track fall into a cycle of failure, where they don’t try as hard (believing they won’t do as well anyway), and as a result, they fail, which only reinforces their self-perception as a failure. On the other hand, kids who feel good about themselves are more likely to try really hard, reach a goal and reinforce their self-perception as being successful.

For older kids, self-esteem takes on a new dimension as teens engage in social comparison that includes, among other things, socioeconomic status. Kids tend to recognize, and be upset by, those who have more material things than they do. Parents may need to step in: “We may not have as much as your friend, but life is more than just things.”

Some indications that a child is facing challenges include changes in schoolwork: They were doing well but all of a sudden the grades drop off. Another clear sign is when your child doesn’t want anything to do with his or her regular group of friends. Abrupt behavioral changes often are signals that something is going on with the way children evaluate themselves.

Provide positive reinforcement
Parents can intervene when they see the cycle of failure and help their kids identify positive activities. For instance, if your daughter thinks she lacks the skills needed to do well in a particular subject, suggest a before- or after-school tutoring session with a teacher. Maybe your son is upset that he failed to make the team. Help him find another interest to pursue.

While low self-esteem and lack of confidence may happen when a child focuses on one thing he or she may not be good at, parents can provide the reinforcing voice that says, “You are more than that; you still have all these other positive qualities to focus on.”

Children run the risk of developing low self-esteem if they believe that one negative aspect of themselves is who they are. But kids who are successful and have greater self-confidence learn to accept their strengths and weaknesses as part of a multifaceted view of themselves. In the process, they lay the foundation of a healthy self-esteem.

Dr. Nicolle Napier-Ionascu is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte.
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