A precarious self-esteem makes us less resilient! Welcome to the-bullshit-series.
Doing some volunteer work at a mental health NGO has made me realize how central self-esteem is to mental health and to how people cope with daily stressors.
Lucky me! As I scrolled through my notes as an undergrad, I rediscovered Dr. Robert Brooks’ list of practical ways to develop self-esteem in children. Before I list those 10 ways, let me talk about the epidemic of poor self-esteem a little bit.
It’s crucial that you actually aim to be a parent who develops self-esteem because even though it doesn’t help to blame parents for how we turn out, the science concludes that parents definitely do affect their children. More specifically, parents affect the development of children’s self-esteem, whereas children do affect parents, but not their parents’ self-esteem. In other words, how you treat your child will largely determine how they feel about themself and the world around them.
Usually, parents behave in ways that restrict the development of their child’s self-esteem because they didn’t get good-enough parenting themselves. Perhaps the parents of these parents used to make them feel like there’s something wrong with them, that they’re not interesting, not worth anybody’s time, not acceptable nor lovable, and as if they’re bereft of positive abilities and traits.
Therefore, naturally, parents of such parents will do the same to their children even if they say they love their children. It’s just inevitable—it’s the only way they know to love. But the truth remains that the way these parents ‘love’ doesn’t build self-esteem.
Healthy interaction between parent and child is necessary for children to become emotionally-resilient adults. There’s no way around it.
10 practical ways to develop self-esteem in children:
#1 Make your child feel special and appreciated by spending quality time with them.
#2 Do what your child enjoys doing the most when you set aside time alone with your child. They’re the focus, so what THEY like is key, so let your child choose how your time together will be spent.
#3 Listen attentively to your child during your quality time together.
#4 Be empathetic to your child’s experience, be it their struggles in doing a task or their feelings about anything— try your best to understand where your child is coming from. By the way, it’s hard to empathize if the parent personalizes their child’s ways…so try seeing your child as their own person who will grow into their own skin and have their own life.
#5 Leave out negative and judgmental comments about your child because those will only make your child feel not good enough and that something’s wrong with who they fundamentally are. Give your child the benefit of the doubt because most children are not out to get you or to fail on purpose. No children wants to disappoint their parent. So instead, figure out what challenges your child faces and support them by scaffolding and problem-solving with them. In essence, separate their ‘struggles and challenges’ from ‘them’ so that you don’t victimize them.
Heck, even using words like ‘struggle’ and ‘challenge’ paint a more helpful picture than using phrases like ‘why are you…”, “you need to…”, and “what is wrong with you”.
#6 Develop your child’s social problem-solving skills so they feel confident in confronting social situations that might be difficult. For example, you can model smiling and encourage them to smile because doing so eases conflicts in social settings.
#7 Empower your child and give them a sense of autonomy [control] by giving them multiple appropriate choices. Authoritarian-style parents demand a lot yet respond little to their child’s needs, which means that these parents don’t present choices at all and do not care about their child’s experience of things. Parenting the authoritarian way is a brilliant way to squash the development of your child’s self-esteem.
So for formal events where you want your child to dress a certain way, present several reasonable outfit options and consider your child’s reactions to those outfits instead of saying ‘Here, this is what I want you to wear, put it on quick, get in the car! I don’t care what you think about that outfit’.
In fact, people in therapy often can’t imagine choices and alternatives to their ways of being, which shows how an open attitude to decision-making can set children up for a more flexible and therefore resilient way of being.
#8 Help your child set realistic expectations and goals for themselves [which also helps your child gain a sense of control over his or her life].
#9 Focus on your child’s strengths. And help your child understand that each person has things they are good at and things they are not good at and that’s okay.
#10 Celebrate the things they are good at while keeping a healthy understanding of the things they can still improve. For parents with more than one children, completely avoid comparing siblings; everyone is different and unique and differences should be celebrated too.
Parents are not responsible for their children’s self-esteem? That’s Bullshit.
To celebrate childhood, let’s end this article with Kahlil Gibran’s poem On Children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
But seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
As living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
And He bends you with His might
That His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So He loves also the bow that is stable.
Truly, being a good parent is hard because you owe your child your emotional presence, social support, and faith in them, whereas they owe you nothing except to be the best version of themselves, eventually. Most parents aren’t good enough because they (oftentimes un- or subconsciously) expect their children to be what they want them to be and wait until that happens, if it ever does, until they show acceptance and interest. By the time that happens and if that happens, your children have grown up and may already have resentment for how judgmental and critical you were and how little faith you had in them. Most of all, by that time, you would have left them with the challenging duty of working out their inner worlds by themselves.
Note: Some parents only care about their own self-esteem— and use their children merely as a way to boost their own self-esteem, and that’s fine. The world is a wonderful place.