There are 2 ways to get high self esteem –
1. Modeling – if your parents have it, then you will more than likely have it
2. Learn and practice high self esteem behavior
Thank goodness for number 2!
I learned this at a recent special parent education event I attended at my son’s school, the Westside Neighborhood School in Playa Vista. Dr. Alan Yellin, Ph.D and noted Los Angeles based child psychologist was speaking about Enhancing Self Esteem in Your Child. He said, remember what we want for our children are the 5 ‘c’s:
How does a child get there and how can we as parents help? Here are some highlights from this highly informative event that helped reinforce some of my own ideas and beliefs around self esteem.
Dr. Yellin said one of the most important elements of self esteem in children is the way in which children speak to themselves in their own mind. Do they say “I did a great job” and “that was hard, but I didn’t give up” which is a sign of higher self esteem or do they say “I can’t do anything right” and “Nobody likes me”, a sign of lower self esteem. How children speak to themselves determine their level of self-esteem. Self-Esteem = Private Speech.
This concept about the mind keeps coming up for me – most recently in the book Little Voice Mastery by Blair Singer where he describes the six inches between your ears as your own “little voice” sabotaging you from reaching your true potential. At home we’ve named it our ‘tricky brain.’ It’s a term my son now refers to when he realizes he’s thinking thoughts that don’t serve him. “The Marlins are going to beat us, I don’t think we can win,” he said about a recent little league championship game. I listened and watched as he stopped, thought for a moment and said, “that’s my tricky brain isn’t it.” Yea! I thought, how cool is that! He’s only 8 yet I make up what he learns about the mind at this age will positively impact him throughout his life. Side note – my son’s team won, go Twins!
So, how do we help our children speak to themselves in a way positive way? Teach by example and model how we speak to ourselves. Think about it, how do you speak to yourself? Is it supportive? Is it unforgiving? Our children pick it up. Do you punish yourself for getting a parking ticket for example or do you say, made a mistake, oh well, not perfect and will try not to do that again. Teaching your child that not being perfect is okay and being resilient is important also helps with inner speech. Be forgiving of yourself and your child will model that as well.
One parent asked, what if your child has a ‘devastating’ experience, e.g., losing a tournament, breaking a toy, getting a bad grade, what do you say/do? First, practice empathy; seek to understand your child’s experience and empathize. Second gather information; ask your child what he is saying to himself. What are the words being used to describe how he’s feelings about himself, e.g., I’m stupid, I’m bad, and/or I’m a loser. Third, teach them about choice and provide an alternative way of thinking about the experience. Help them look at the experience in another way. Fourth, put it in perspective, teach them resilient strategies. Use questions to lead the child and help them gain perspective on what’s important.
Important note, when they are in the “I don’t care” stage they are not available emotionally to hear anything so table it.
Other elements of self-esteem include the value of friendships, the importance that a child have more than one friend and that he maintains friendships. Dr. Yellin talked about a study done by Cassidy and Asher on loneliness and children that states kids as early as kindergarten and 1st grade report understanding the concept of loneliness and feeling lonely. Poor peer relationships and feeling excluded can be damaging to self esteem. Peer interaction and friendships is important to children’s development. We need to teach them how to be a good friend by having a greater degree of empathy, giving compliments, teaching them how to give back, modeling how to have friends based on our own friendships.
“From 3rd grade up, any child that eats lunch alone is a child at risk” – Dr. Alan Yellin
Perfectionism and Overprotection
What lower’s self esteem? This hit home for me. Parental perfectionism and parental overprotection. When we expect perfection in ourselves our children see that, feel it and believe that they need to be perfect. I experienced this around cooking and company. My mom was a wonderful cook and a gracious host and when we had company she cooked and baked (and sweated over) every meal from scratch. And if something didn’t come out ‘perfect’ she would be hard on herself. I could feel it and see it. It’s like she couldn’t relax because she wanted everything to be perfect. Guess who picked that up? I only realized it after what, the 50th dinner party. It would start with a panic in my belly. Then I’d find myself shopping all over town – fruits and vegetables from the farm, organic meat from the butcher and everything else from the grocery store. Then at home, I was on a mission, carefully preparing (and sweating over) each appetizer, meal and dessert, really not enjoying the experience because why – I wanted it to be perfect!
If your child exhibits signs of perfectionism – model by not being a perfectionist, play games in which they are required to make a mistake, give them the experience at not being perfect. Then normalize it. Set rules before playing a game. An example might be: We’re going to stay for the whole game. When you’re getting frustrated, tell me. No matter what we are going to be good winners and good losers. And we are going to complete the game and for completing it you will earn 10 minutes of Wii time.
On over protection, if we overprotect, we teach that the world’s a scary place and that creates fear. I remember as a child of maybe 6, when my mom revealed that there was a burglar breaking into homes in our neighborhood, I was devastated. First, because until that moment I didn’t know there were ‘bad people out there’. And second, it instilled fear. Now, my mom was trying to protect me. I wonder however, what that might have done to my level of esteem. There is a fine line and finding that balance I think is key. You want your children to be aware and safe and yet you don’t want to strip away their innocence too soon.
Characteristics of High/Low Esteem Families
Dr. Yellin added some interesting findings on characteristics of high and low self esteem families.
Households/parents of high esteemed children:
o Parents are attentive to the child and make time to listen (and not from afar or while plugged into the computer or iPhone)
o There is a high degree of agreement between the parents in how the child was raised
o Father’s are more involved and committed
o Parents accept respect and expect respect
o The home is family centered, not child centered
o Praise is the preferred mode of discipline – genuine praise – a 5 to 1 ratio – meaning for every constructive critical statement follow up with 5 positive statements.
o Limit setting was clear, fair and restrictive
o Punishment was more a management of undesirable behavior – never harsh or embarrassing!
o Hierarchy that’s clearly spelled out with parents on top and the child below the parents
o Boundaries are set and clear
Households/parents of low self-esteem children include;
o Very little parental guidance
o Hierarchy is mom, dad and child on equal footing
o Child centered home
o The child has tremendous power and control in the family
An interesting side note: Common characteristics of pro athletes, entertainers, scientists, CEO, professional who are top in their field;
o As children they never showed any natural talent
o They received a lot of praise from parents
o All reported failure and none of them viewed failure as devastating
In conclusion, points to keep in mind as we raise our children to be confident, competent, compassionate, committed and connected;
o Use words of encouragement
o Focus on what’s good
o Accept your child as they are
o Have faith in your children so they can believe in themselves
o Recognize improvement
o Respect your children
o Have realistic expectations
o Standards that are too high invite failure
o Keep a sense of humor
o Encourage and model good friendships.
At the end of the day, there are two conditions in which children feel the highest level of self esteem; I am loved no matter what and I am worthwhile. I don’t think that speaks only of children. This is a passionate subject for me not only as a mom but also an adult who continues to seek a higher level of self esteem and take charge of my own tricky brain.