Parenting for Self-Esteem

Parenting for Self-Esteem

Virtually every child, teen, and even adult I see in my clinical practice, suffers from a self-esteem problem in some way, shape, or form. And essentially all parents seeking information or counseling about their child's emotional development want to know how to build their child's self-esteem. Whether intuitively or from exposure to psychological research findings, we all seem to recognize the importance of self-esteem to a person's emotional well-being and mental health. We know it begins to develop very early in childhood and that it plays a major psychological role throughout the lifespan in a person's capacity to face challenges and cope adaptively with stress.

Self-esteem is a psychological construct which refers to how the self (body and mind) is viewed and valued. I am using it to encompass terms such as: self-concept, self-image, self-efficacy, self-worth, and self-respect. We can think of self-esteem as how your child basically feels about himself; how he judges himself as measuring up in terms of skills, talents, abilities, and attributes; and how much he values and respects himself.

Your child's genetics, physical characteristics, and innate skills and talents will influence self-esteem development. Her experiences and performance in the classroom and on the athletic field will also contribute. But, by far, the largest influence on her self-esteem will most likely be yours.

The foundations of self-esteem are established in very early stages of child development. Way before your child can understand your words of praise, he is aware of the admiring twinkle in your eye. Your encouragement, support, excitement, and commendations enable your child to learn, take risks, tolerate frustration, and feel proud of his accomplishments.

Perhaps even more important, though, is your unconditional acceptance of your child as a person, including her limitations and imperfections. When a child experiences such acceptance, it establishes the sense that she is a worthwhile human being regardless of any particular ability or attribute, and that she deserves good relationships and positive experiences in her life.

Helping your child develop a strong and positive sense of mastery and competency is another essential aspect of fostering his self-esteem. If he can recognize and appreciate the impact of his choices and behavior, he will be more likely to view himself as competent and efficacious, rather than a victim of circumstance and fate. This sense of mastery is important in all arenas of your child's world: academics, athletics, the arts, recreation, social relationships, as well as his body, impulses and emotions. Your expectations for appropriate behavior and your implementation of natural and consistent consequences facilitate the development of this aspect of your child's self-esteem.

Positive discipline, as opposed to being punitive, is also important to the development of a positive sense of self-worth. How can a child learn to feel good about herself and her abilities when she constantly hears "no" or negative statements implying that her efforts or achievements are not good enough? While it may not always be easy to parent and discipline positively, it is well worth the effort. It may be helpful to remember that the vast majority of children feel good about themselves when they know they are behaving in a "mature" way and are pleasing important adults in their lives.

The self-esteem of your teenager is particularly crucial. As he becomes more independent of you, it will be his sense of self-worth, in many instances, that determines his behavior. Teens with poor self-esteem are more vulnerable to peer pressure and more likely to have depressive reactions and eating disorders. They are at higher risk to abuse alcohol and drugs, and to take risks such as driving dangerously.

Self-esteem will also help determine your teen's investment in her physical health. Cigarette smoking, obesity, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS), and noncompliance with medical advice pose serious, even life-threatening, problems for adolescents. These are most often the problems of teenagers who lack the confidence and self-respect to resist dangerous impulses and negative peer pressure.

Finally, adolescent self-esteem issues are especially important in terms of their likely influence on college and/or career path decisions. It is terribly unfortunate that teenagers who are bright and competent, but with low self-esteem, will often sell themselves short and withdraw from situations that offer opportunities for academic or vocational success.

We all know from experience that people of any age who suffer from low self-esteem can be prone to brag, boast, and bully. This is a maladaptive effort to defend against painful feelings of inadequacy and can lead to even more serious forms of emotional and physical abuse of others.

It is incumbent on all of us who raise or work with children to be ever alert to enhancing their self-esteem. It's probably the most important thing we can do.

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