I was asked by a parent to share some tips on how she can give her son tools to build his self-esteem, who is eleven. Her concerns are that he seems not to trust people easily, and has to warm up to people. He does not verbalize his feelings, and tends to shut down if he is upset. He lacks confidence in himself and is cautious about building friendships. These personality traits are in sharp contrast to her younger son, who has the opposite personality. Here are my thoughts.
First, a child trusting is a learned process. Children from very early on learn by experience that they do something and another person responds. If those experiences proved that individuals can be hurtful, mean, inconsiderate, etc., a child can be guarded. Additionally, temperament plays a factor in a child seeing the world as a safe and friendly place, or one of which you should be cautious. Neither is wrong or incorrect, just the reality of perceptions based on personality. You can help a child learn to trust others by helping him trust himself. The more a kid understands who they are, what they are capable of, and who supports them no matter what, the more likely they are to see the good in people because they see the good in themselves.
So, how do you help a child build confidence and self-esteem? I wrote an article several years ago with some ideas that you can click to read, titled: Developing Self-Esteem in Children, but let me expound and enlarge the concept. It is interesting to acknowledge all of the components that are interrelated when considering self-esteem. You cannot ignore the importance of choices, responsibility, reflecting feelings, emotional vocabulary, and self-worth. They are all so intertwined that I can only begin to scratch the surface of each. However, I will give you a brief overview of the idea, which should give you a place to start in helping your child build a healthy self-esteem.You can find previous articles on many of these topics as well, in the archives.
Let me begin with choices. A child needs to learn how to make decisions. If they are always told what to do, when to do it, why they should, how to do it, and where to go, how will they ever learn what it feels like to make a choice? Giving children choices on varying levels increases self-esteem as they begin to understand themselves. When you make a decision, you are responsible for that choice and the consequence that comes with it. You also learn what you like, what you dislike, what you are good at, what you need help with, etc. Self-concept is a dynamic process and must be practiced.
Responsibility was mentioned with choices, but is separate. Without the opportunity to be trusted to make decisions, be held accountable, and be open to testing boundaries, children cannot learn to grow up. Becoming individuals who are capable, competent, and contributing comes with experiences doing just those things. Children will know what it means to accept their actions and the results of those actions when given age-appropriate responsibility. This in turn allows them to believe in their abilities to handle situations.
Reflecting feelings is a basic concept for almost every other technique. Children need to hear what they are feeling from adults who better understand emotion. If a child expresses frustration at a sibling and yells, the most likely response from a parent is correction or scolding for yelling. In reality, a better approach is to say, “Kevin, you are angry at your sister because she took your toy. You can choose to tell me that you would like your toy back, or ask her to give it back to you calmly”. Notice that you acknowledged the feeling, so the child feels understood. You cannot understand yourself without guidance from those around you. Then you give them a choice about how to handle the situation, providing responsibility and decision making skills.
An added benefit of reflecting feelings is that your child builds an emotional vocabulary. Children are not able to express their emotions effectively until they are approaching adolescence. When you ask a child what is wrong and they say they don’t know, that is probably the truth. Your role as a parent is to help them learn to communicate what they are feeling. If a child jumps up and down and has a huge grin, it is helpful to say, “Jane, you are so excited!” This not only helps them connect what they are feeling within their body to a word, but it helps them learn what they are communicating non-verbally as well. Sometimes, kids do not demonstrate their feelings correctly, and when you tell them they are feeling angry (based on what they are showing you by their actions), they may correct you and say that they are sad. They need to learn that what they do is just as important as what they say when it comes to emotions.
Finally, self-worth is a concept that many adults have not fully mastered. It is a real, true understanding that we have significance beyond what we can do. Who we are is okay, and we can accept our successes and failures equally. The most effective way to help a child grow their self-worth is to encourage them. Acknowledge their efforts, their attempts, their work, their drive, regardless of the outcome. In other words, a child can lose a tournament with their team, but can be encouraged for their commitment to practice every week, their servant-heart to other teammates, their willingness to help clean up after games, etc. It is not about being successful, but rather who they are that matters. Keep in mind that praising a child does not result in self-worth, only encouragement does!
So, with all of that new information, you should have a few more tools in your tool belts for the new year. Notice that I never said these were tips to help develop self-esteem in your kids. I intentionally chose to say that you are helping your child build a healthy self-esteem. What you do only goes so far. You need to focus on teaching them how to do these things. After all, you can give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.