Why Your Child’s Future Could Depend On Her Self-Esteem
Takeaway: Self-esteem describes a child’s sense of self-worth, and it plays a huge role in designing her future. Children with a strong sense of self-worth are emotionally hardy, independent, and love taking on challenges. In contrast, children with low self-esteem tend to be more anxious, withdrawn, and afraid of trying anything new. Thankfully, we can boost our children’s self-esteem by working on their negative self-talk with an experienced child psychologist as a guide.
Children thrive when they know they’re capable, independent, and worthy of love.
Young children need to know they’re loved regardless of their actions or what life throws at them. This inner ‘safe space’ gives them the curiosity and courage to explore the world, become more independent, and help the people around them. But it takes time and effort to build this inner safe space, and it depends largely on a child’s self-esteem – i.e., her general sense of self-worth. As parents, we can build our children’s self-esteem by reminding them that they are inherently ‘good’ and worthy of love regardless of how they act. It’s a subtle difference in parenting but can transform an insecure child into a more confident and braver version of herself.
Research suggests that self-esteem develops early – often in nursery.
Historically, it’s been tough to measure self-esteem in young children because they can’t process or communicate complex ideas about the ‘self’ as adults can. But recently, scientists have started devising innovative picture-based tests that work around this. For instance, one group of researchers in Seattle taught nursery schoolers to connect external objects with concepts like ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ More specifically, they used colourful flags, training the children to see one group of flags as being ‘theirs’ and another as being ‘not theirs.’ So, they could now run an experiment to see which group of flags the children would associate random words with. Some were ‘good’ words like fun, happy, and nice, while others were ‘bad,’ like mad, yucky, and mean. Surprisingly, the experiments showed that even 5-year-olds have a strong sense of self, self-worth, and social identity – all of which are intricately connected to other aspects of their personality.
There isn’t just one source of self-esteem, though. Rather, there’s a web of interrelated factors.
Genetics and personality certainly contribute to how extroverted, conscientious, and emotionally stable a child is. But other factors like their home environment, thinking patterns (e.g., focusing on their weaknesses vs strengths), physical health, and sense of belonging are all equally important.
These factors build on each other, adding layers to a child’s self-esteem.
Infants develop a sense of security if parents meet their love and protection needs. That means comforting babies when they cry, feeding them when they’re hungry, giving them attention (e.g., playing and laughing with them) when they need stimulation, and so on. Next, in toddlerhood, they begin to develop an identity based on their physical bodies, skills/abilities (e.g., walking, talking, etc.), and role in the family. This continues in preschool as they add to their identity, contrasting it to their classmates in terms of height, athletic ability, class performance, etc. And in school, they explore their intellectual, emotional, and social selves – forming an increasingly robust sense of self.
But if we don’t guide and encourage children through all these stages, they’ll struggle to reach their potential.
Children who haven’t learned to believe in themselves and their abilities tend to withdraw from life. They think of themselves negatively (e.g., ‘I’m dumb,’ or ‘I’m lazy’), give up on challenges quickly, and reject new opportunities to grow. It’s like there’s an emotional hole in them that they’re always trying to fill, leaving them feeling drained and inadequate. Depending on their personality, these difficulties can make them sad and depressed or angry and rebellious. Further, children with low self-esteem tend to be emotionally fragile, hiding from feedback (positive or negative) – something that prevents them from improving and evolving. But most damaging, they’ll often mask their weaknesses by acting laidback and disinterested in life or using humour to camouflage their insecurities.
There’s a simple fix for this, though. And that’s to help them acknowledge the positives in their lives.
Since low self-esteem stems from negative life experiences, we can help by teaching children to recognise and acknowledge all the good in their lives. For instance, they could create a ‘memory box’ to collect things like certificates, photos, and artwork they’re proud of – anything that documents the joy of taking on fun, life-affirming projects.
Memory boxes can also help your child identify her strengths.
A memory box represents joyful things in your child’s life, so it’s the perfect tool to uncover her many strengths. For instance, a painting could hint at her artistic potential, or a book of jokes could highlight her love for comedy. The point here is that she’s discovering things she finds innate joy in instead of things she does to win others’ approval. And this journey will reveal her true self instead of the persona she creates to fit in better.
If step one of this journey is to identify strengths, step two is to embrace failure.
Since children with low self-esteem are hypersensitive to criticism, they’re terrified of failing. Instead, we can teach them to separate their performance from their sense of self-worth. So, failing at something is a valuable source of feedback, not a sign that they are a failure. And by acting on this feedback, they can gradually better at anything.(This is the idea behind having a growth mindset.) You can roleplay different scenarios to explore these ideas. For instance, you could ask your child to list some of her fears and help correct her negative self-talk. If she says, “I’m afraid of speaking in class because I might say something stupid,” you could point out that she’s assuming she’ll say something stupid, and that’s a worst-case scenario. Moreover, even if she does say something stupid, can that change her worth? Actually, can anything change her worth? These sorts of discussions can help correct her faulty thinking patterns and encourage her to acknowledge her fears but act despite them. Each time she does this, it’s another marker of how capable and brave she is – which creates a gradual, positive snowball effect.
At times, you might need a guide for all this. And the right therapist will have the mental tools and techniques to help.
It takes skill to help children build their self-esteem, and as parents, we often don’t have enough training and experience. For instance, some children might be overly perfectionistic or have an underlying anxiety issue to address – things a therapist has the mental tools and techniques for. So, feel free to reach out to us for support and guidance on this journey. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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