The past few generations of parents have been very aware of the role self esteem plays in the emotional development of our children. Many methods have been tried. Overly praising, giving everyone a trophy or award for everything, taking away competition… Over all these methods have not proven to really help.
In the early years of competitions (sports or academics), I really see nothing wrong with participation awards. Kids are trying something new, maybe getting out of their comfort zone. They have to learn to listen to a coach (that might not have any experience with teaching young kids, so they deserve a trophy too!). I think these awards are nice keepsakes and reminders of accomplishments. Maybe that is just participating in practices and games, showing up in inclement weather and weeding their spot out on the field. Either way, celebrating these new accomplishments are perfectly ok. I’m not sure how far this goes in building up every kid, but I know my sons enjoy looking back at those trophies from the early years and reminiscing. It doesn’t take long before kids outgrown the “need” to have that participation recognition.
Over the top Praise
“You are awesome!” “You are the BEST!” Empty praise doesn’t go far. Sometime it can create the “need” in kids to be praised and recognized for everything! This gets old fast, then kids are left wondering why no is clapping when they sit down. This can lead to a desire for unneeded attention. Kids start to rely on other to validate them and they use external feedback to determine their self worth. This doesn’t really help self esteem.
Avoiding Negative Experiences
Some parents feel that if their children do not have negative or bad experiences then they will not have “bad” feelings. This could not be further from the truth. By shielding kids from difficult experiences we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to cope and get through it. It’s not our job to save them from tough times, (it’s also not our job to give them tough times), it’s our job to be their for them and help them figure out how to get through it. If you have a kid that really struggles with difficult things,(by this I am mostly referring to kids that have lagging emotional skills due to anxiety, ADHD, or other mental health concerns) you have to keep in mind that you need to set them up for success. This might mean that for a time you avoid certain difficulties. You have to let them experience some struggles, (and if you have a kid that struggles you won’t have to fabricate anything, but use the struggles as a tool to work through emotions.)
Things that work
In this section I’d like to look at what you can do to teach your child to build up their own self esteem. The would is “self” esteem for a reason, it needs to come from the inside. You might be familiar with the term “fill up your bucket” This refers to paying compliments to other to “fill their bucket” up with good things. This is ok, but the world punches holes on the bucket daily, we need to learn how to fix the holes in our buckets and keep the world from draining it!
By “authentic praise” I mean to be specific with your praise. Instead of clapping and saying to your toddler, “Yeah, you sat down!” Try saying “Thanks for sitting when I asked.” or “Thanks for listening.” As your kids get older you can often stick to a simple “Thank you” when they do as you ask or follow the rules without a fight. You can definitely point out when they do a good job, but be specific. “I like how you used many colors in your picture. I love it!” or “I like how you didn’t give up when your team was losing the game, that is an awesome skill!” “I like to see how hard you worked on that project. You really gave it your all!” You still will need to help be positive when kids fail.
Using Failure as a Tool
Once I read about a parent that said to their child, “I’m so glad you failed.” The child was upset and thought the parent was being a jerk, “What do you mean?” “Now you have the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and realize that winning isn’t everything.” I know that no one like to lose, or get a failing grade. The key is to learn from it! Thomas Edison was great at this. He is known to have said of his many “failures” at making a light bulb that he didn’t fail to make a light bulb, he learned many ways NOT to make a light bulb. Sometimes you learn more from failure than from success. The next time your child fails, help them analyze it. If they studied for a spelling test by writing the words a few times and fail, have them figure out a different way to study. Maybe they should spell them out loud or write them in sand. Perhaps learning the alphabet in sign language and signing the words, letter by letter will help them.
Most of us will fail at things through out our lives, it’s a great skill to learn how to use it as an opportunity to learn instead of a time to feel bad, stupid or ashamed. We all make mistakes, but we don’t have to be defined by them.
Listen to the good stuff, not the bad
Most of us focus on the negative. Even celebrities that have hundreds of thousands of followers may find themselves obsessing about the few negative comments left on their social media posts. We tend to ignore the good and only hear the bad. We let the negative opinions of others define how we see ourselves. It can be very easy to forget the good stuff. A friend of mine came up with a great idea for her son. He was about 10/11 years old and was starting to learn who he was in the world. His peers had made a few unkind comments and he started to obsess about them. He shared this with his mom. She then suggested that he carry around a notebook and whenever someone said something nice to or about him that he write down who said it and what they said. This made him stop and think about the good stuff more than the bad. This helped remind him who he knew that he really was! This greatly helped his self esteem!
Sometimes the good things we do without really thinking about them get played down in our “self talk” (that voice in our heads that often shapes how we see ourselves). We don’t see those things as important, often because it comes naturally to us. Maybe your child often says encouraging things to others, they might not even notice they are helping their friend, but if its pointed out and they think about it, they can tell themselves that they are encouraging to others. Maybe their artwork or music brings a smile to someone, they might not see it, or value it. They might only hear the person that tells them to stop. Help them learn to listen to the good stuff. (Chances are if you are reading this, you need to hear that you are a great parent! If you are reading about helping a kid, you are going a great thing! Crappy parents don’t read blogs to help kids!)
Remind them that everyone makes mistakes
Kids often think their mistakes are catastrophic. Bombing a test, missing a shot, dropping the ball, these are things even professionals do all the time. As parents we know we screw up at least on a weekly basis, we are just good at covering it up or not making a big deal about it to our kids. (Or hiding it from the neighbors for fear of judgement.) Let you kids see your mistakes, and take the same advice from above, give yourself some grace and learn from it. If your kids are older, tell them about a few things you did as a teen that you had to learn from. Tell them about the test you forgot to study for, the time you were late for work, or the time you forgot your coffee cup on top of your car!
Some kids take their mistakes way to seriously. They may blame their mistakes for bigger things that aren’t even related. I’ve heard of kids blaming themselves for relatives getting cancer. Kids often blame themselves for their parents fighting. Sometimes they carry this blame and shame and let it weigh them down. Sometimes they get so weighed down by it that you need to seek professional help to learn to cope. This is not a sign of bad parenting. Everyone’s body chemistry is unique and sometimes we need a professional to help us learn how to handle big emotions. There is nothing wrong with that!
Positive Self Talk
This can be a bit tricky. Self talk has a huge influence on our self esteem. We often don’t have any idea what our kids are telling themselves. If we ask, they might tell us. We can help them practice positive self talk. Have them look into a mirror and say something positive. Try things like “I am capable!” “I am kind,” If that is too hard, maybe even “I can write my name” or another recent accomplishment. I know teens and tween might think this is really silly, but model it for them, even if they won’t do it with you, if they see you doing it on a regular basis, they might try it when they are alone. Maybe they will let you leave them positive self talk notes on the mirror in the bathroom they use or their bedroom.
You need to be careful about how you talk to and about yourself as well. If kids hear us tearing ourselves down, they will not learn to build themselves up! Build their self esteem as your build yours.
Social-emotional health is a vital part of our lives. We need to prioritize it over academic goals. To read more tips on social emotional health read this article.
Here is a great way to practice and develop social emotional skills:
Here is a link to another article with tips and activities for building self esteem