General Parenting Issues — 22 May 2005
How to help your child develop self-esteem

Parents have an enormous role to play in helping their children develop their sense of self-worth. This is a true privilege as well as a daunting task. Here are some specific behavioral recommendations for parents of pre-adolescent children who want to help mold healthier youngsters.

Love and praise your child.

The task of enabling a child to feel unique, special, worthy and lovable begins at birth. The physical vulnerability of infants is clear. What is less clear is that the baby’s psychological self-definition begins in infancy and is initially totally parent- dependent.

The child learns to see himself through parental descriptions. Every adjective, attribute or characteristics assigned to the child, becomes the foundation of how he will regard himself for many years to come.

Thus, repeated praise, affirming and appreciative words as well as physical affection, are food for growth. Statements such as: “You are smart, curious, good sister, good athlete, funny or warm”; help the child see herself favorably in all these dimensions. The evidence for these traits may be supported by observed behavior. “I saw how you helped your sister learn the new game. This shows what a kind and helpful person you are.”

Children who hear repeated true positive statements about their being, competence, looks, talents and achievements, are more likely to develop a secure sense of self.

Spend quality time with your child.

Every moment of attention and shared experience with a parent reinforces the child’s worth. Research indicates that children need twenty minutes a day of quality time with the parent to feel valued and have the best opportunity for healthy overall development. Quality time means a period of full attention to the child doing something that the child enjoys doing. It need not necessarily be educational, only fun and bonding.

Some adults report the sad memory of yearning for the attention of an absent parent. The child often erroneously concludes that he is not getting time with the parent due to the child’s unworthiness. This view may plague him into adulthood and compromise many aspects of his life. Children who get bonding time with parents grow up feeling safe, secure and joyous.

Listen to your child’s words and emotions.

Being heard is essential for youngsters’ healthy development and the establishment of their personal significance. Parents’ sincere interest in understanding the child’s message conveys to the youngster that he is important, valuable and respected. Even if the child’s wish is not granted, the mere consideration of it is self-affirming. When children know that they are important to their parents, and thus to others, they begin to own their sense of importance and confidence.

Parents need to pay close attention not only to the content of children’s talk, but also to their emotions. A five year old, who is upset because her sibling destroyed her painting, needs to be consoled as though it were indeed a piece of fine art. If she is told: “I can imagine how upsetting it is to have your painting destroyed. You worked so hard and created a beautiful painting and it is a big loss to all of us,” she may feel understood, her sadness validated, and her talents recognized and praised.

Provide guidance about proper and improper behavior.

Love gives youngsters the confidence to go through the developmental stages and guidance shows them how to do so. Children need to know that they are deeply cherished and at the same time expected to learn to behave appropriately.

Being affectionate and tender with youngsters, without enforcing proper conduct, causes children to feel unprotected and fearful. A seven year old cannot be expected to regulate her sleep needs. If parents allow the child to make the decision about bedtime, the child will be tired in the daytime, irritable and more likely to arouse the displeasure of the parents. The child may misinterpret the disgruntlement of her parents as a reflection of her unacceptable nature, which damages her self-regard. Conversely, learning good manners and kindness to others may later endear the child to others and continue to provide an additional source of positive self-view.

Discipline your children through affirmation.

Negative conduct of a child is best handled by starting with an appreciation. A child who just hit another child with a toy is often scolded immediately. Though the reprimand is required, I recommend responding as follows: “You are a kind and nice boy, I am so surprised that you hit Jimmy with a truck.” In a firm voice continue:” This is a wrong and hurtful thing to do. Now, what does a nice boy need to do now?” In this format, the parent first validates the positive nature of the child, then firmly establishes the behavior as unacceptable, and then guides the child to come up with the proper solution. The child feels that his nature is solid, his behavior is wrong and he can repair it.

Though it is hard to start with a positive response when a parent is angry about the child’s misbehavior, it is the most effective way toward healthy change.

• If you are concerned that you have not been a perfect parent to date, don’t despair. No parent is consistently effective. Being self- aware is a first sign of a good parent.
• Children are most forgiving of their parent’s mistakes. They learn to respect the parent’s imperfections, provided that it is not a recurring practice. It also helps children normalize their own fallibility.

• Apologize to your child if you made an error and hold yourself accountable for not repeating the same mistake.
• Your strength as a parent is in your love of your child, expressed in words and actions and in modeling and teaching decent behaviors.
• Conveying to your child that she is a good, lovable and worthy person is your best gift toward your child’s healthy sense of self- esteem and success in life.

May 22, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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