Studio 5 Contributor and Therapist, Julie Hanks, says parents are often surprised to discover their child struggles with self-esteem issues.
Assessing your child’s self-esteem: What’s normal and when should you worry?
Self-esteem, a popular construct used to describe an individual’s inner experience, has two parts: how you define yourself, and how you evaluate yourself. It’s easier to evaluate your own experience than someone else’s subjective experience, even your own child. Here are some signs of healthy self-esteem, some examples of when you should be concerned about your child’s self-esteem, and how you can help them develop healthy self-esteem.
Hallmarks of healthy self-esteem in children and teens:
Competence is possessing skills to face life challenges at their developmental stage.
Important skills for young children are basic social skills to get along with peers, to work out disagreements, or new activities like to learning to throw a football, or how to read. For adolescents, top skills are having social skills to navigate the complexities dating relationships or development of study skills to succeed in school.
Confidence is belief in one’s self, one’s abilities, and in one’s experience. The felt assurance he or she is valuable and capable. Confidence is being open to new experiences, and willing to risk looking silly.
For example, my 8-year-old son went skiing for the first time last month. While he was a bit nervous, after only an hour he was skiing without the constant help of my husband. After a few hours was skiing on his own and enjoying himself.
Connection is the ability to feel close to family and friends, to give and receive affection, to share thoughts and emotions, and to seek comfort and help when distressed. Empathy for others and for their own experiences is easily felt and expressed.
In my therapy practice, I have seen hundreds of children and adolescence who look exceptional on the outside – straight A’s, leaders at school, beautiful, athletic, but who are feeling worthless inside. Parents are baffled by their child’s internal pain because they “look fine” and “have so much going for them”. What many of these parents fail to realize is their child’s need for a genuine emotional connection with their parent and for the skills and permission to say, “I don’t want to play this sport”, or “Dad, it hurts me when you yell at me”, not just praise for their outstanding performance.
Coping skills are the ability to handle a variety of situations and emotions and to accept and learn from mistakes without self-doubt, self-loathing, and excessive guilt. It’s also the ability to experience a full-range of emotions, find healthy expression of emotions, and to and bounce back from disappointments, and to take responsibility for choices without blaming others.
When should you worry about your child’s self-esteem?
1- Excessive focus on performance
In an effort to build self-esteem, it’s common for parents to push a child to excel in a particular sport, or academic endeavor, musical instrument, or to notice and praise a particular personality trait over and over. If your son’s self-definition is based on being a star baseball player, what happens if he doesn’t make the high school team? If your daughter labels herself as “the smart one” and gets a C in chemistry, it may shake her self-esteem. If your child self identifies himself as “the nice kid”, and then feels intense anger, he may deny the anger instead learning from it and finding a healthy was to express it.
In my therapy clinic, I’ve worked with several high school athletes suffering physical injuries or mental health problems. One client, a competitive high school runner, was laid up from a physical injury felt completely lost, worthless, aimless, and developed severe depression. She lost their main social support group, her sense of purpose, didn’t know what to do with her time, or her intense feelings of loss and disappointment.
How to help – Encourage your child to broaden their self-definition
Don’t be overly critical or demand perfect performance from your child. Notice intangible qualities such as patience or expressiveness and encourage the development of many varied interests and activities. Give you child opportunities of serving others connecting to larger social groups like family, neighbors, and community members in need.
A couple of years ago my brother mother and sister-in-law took their large family Peru to volunteer to work in orphanages. Seeing the extreme poverty, and so many children who were desperate for physical love and attention broadened the family’s view of the world and of their capacity to make a difference for others who are suffering. My nieces and nephews realized what a difference very small acts of kindness, like a hug or playing a game, matter. They felt good about themselves and gained a greater sense of appreciative for their family , their opportunities, and their resources.
2-Negativity toward self or others
While an occasional self-disparaging comment every now and then can be normal, if your child or teen exhibits a recurring pattern of negative comments about him or herself. Examples of negative self-statements are “I’m so stupid” or “No one likes me”, “I’m such a loser”.
Your child may not always share their negative thoughts with you so watch for behavioral evidence of negativity like neglecting caring for their hygiene, underperforming in school and other activities, unwillingness to try things that will make them look foolish, or withdrawing from social activities.
Excessive blaming of others, put downs, physical aggression, and treating others poorly can also be a sign of low self-esteem. When children feel good about themselves, they are likely to treat others with respect and kindness.
How to help – Listen and empathizebefore offering guidance or advice.
Parent’s gut response to hearing their child’s pain is to counter it with evidence to the contrary – to convince their child that they should think more positively about themselves. “You are not dumb! Why would you say that?” or “What do you mean you don’t have any friends? You were invited to so many birthday parties over the past year I can’t even count them.” Don’t underestimate the power of hearing your child, sitting there and saying, “Ouch, that’s got to feel pretty bad to have no friends” or simply say, “Tell me more.” One of the best gifts you can give to your child is give your child skills to identify and express their thoughts and feelings in a productive and connecting way
I recently counseled a couple with concern about their 13-year-old daughter’s self-esteem. She was having difficulty fitting in with her peers, finding her identity, and they were at a loss on how to help their daughter. The parents are working on identifying their own feelings and needs in therapy, and I assured them that modeling healthy emotional management and feeling positive about themselves was one of the best ways to help their daughter. They consciously practiced listening to and validating their daughter’s feelings of fear, sadness, and loneliness, and once she felt heard, coached her on how to find solutions to struggles. They also set up a structure for her to earn things that were really important to her — like getting a cell phone, which gave her a sense of control and competence. They also worked on praising her efforts in school, and efforts to reach out to others socially.
3-Fear of trying new things
Children with low self-esteem have difficulty taking risks and tend to give up easily when a task gets difficult. They also tend to avoid situations where they may not be naturally gifted or competent.
How to help – Praise your child’s effort with specific, sincere feedback. Avoid combining praise with expressions of love.
Most parents believe that constantly praising their child builds self-esteem. Not so. Lavishing general praise such as “you’re smart” can actually backfire and lower a child’s motivation, esteem, and willingness to try new things, according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their book Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children. In chapter 1, Bronson and Merryman draw on research from Psychologist Carol Dweck who says, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
It’s also important to separate praise and expressions of love. The message “You’re so pretty and I love you” can actually create anxiety because the implicit message is “If you aren’t pretty, I won’t love you anymore.”
4-Too clingy or overly independent
When what is developmentally appropriate at an earlier stage is exhibited when a child is older, it’s time to worry. For example, if a two year old is clinging to his mother at preschool, that’s common, but if a sixth grader is having difficulty leaving her mother’s side, that IS cause for concern. Conversely, while it’s developmentally normal for an adolescent not to share some of her emotions with you as a parent, if an elementary school child is distant and never able to ask for help or comfort, there may be a problem. Children with low self-esteem have difficulty taking risks and tend to give up easily when a task gets difficult. They also tend to avoid situations where they may not be naturally gifted or competent.
Many parents assume that independence is always sign of high self-worth.
A client, who grew up with an alcoholic, physically abusive father and a submissive, depressed mom, learned at an early age not to express any anger, sadness, or emotional needs, to keep her siblings quiet so dad wouldn’t get upset, take on household chores so her mother wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. This is an example of unhealthy independence. It’s not age appropriate for an elementary school child to protect her mother, parent her siblings, and shut down her own feelings. What my client needed from her parents in order to develop healthy dependency was for them to protect her, for her mom to stand up to her husband and required him to get treatment or leave, for her father to take responsibility for his alcohol abuse and physical abuse of the family, and for support to work through the pain that the situation caused her.
How to help – Help your child develop healthy dependency – a combination of closeness and independence.
This is a balance between being able to venture out and explore new people and new activities AND being able to be close, share vulnerable feelings, and to send clear signals when they need help. When children feel secure in family relationships they feel more confident to embrace new experiences. Send your child the message, “I believe in you! You can do this, and I am here for you if you really need me.”
Nothing is more powerful than what you model to your child. Ask yourself what you are modeling to your child in terms of self-esteem. How you feel about yourself, and how well you balance your own need for independence and for connection in your relationships is the most powerful way to improve your child.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is a therapist, self & relationship expert, media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Visit www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com for individual, couple, family, & group counseling services designed to strengthen you and your family. We treat mental health and relationship problems in children, adolescents, and adults.