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Building Self-Esteem in Children

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Learn about the signs of low self-esteem in children. Discover how to help your child overcome negative thoughts and gain self-esteem.

A parent writes, Our eight year old son has recently expressed many negative thoughts about himself. In addition to sometimes telling my husband and I that he hates himself, he becomes very moody and fixates upon what's wrong with him. We're worried that he may become depressed. What can we do to help him develop a stronger self-esteem?

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Signs of Low Self-Esteem in Children

One of the most troubling dilemmas for parents is when children show signs of low self-esteem. Despite our best efforts to help them feel good about themselves, we watch with dismay as they:

  • resist social opportunities
  • narrow choices to "ego safe" activities
  • verbally punish themselves
  • display a variety of other self-deprecating behaviors

Unfortunately, these signs of low self-esteem serve to confirm their negative self-view, setting in motion a self-defeating cycle that can lead to even more disturbing consequences.

When children are trapped in this cycle, parents are often beset by feelings of powerlessness themselves. We may point to plenty of positive things about our child, but sense our voice is being drown out by an internal voice inside our child that screens out the good and emphasizes the bad parts of self.

How to Help Your Child Gain Self-Esteem

Here are some suggestions for coaching your child to a strong and stable self-esteem:

Empathy helps pierce the isolation. Correcting the problem begins with parents demonstrating love and acknowledging the child's painful feelings. Before healing can begin children must know that they can lean on us for understanding and guidance. Offer comforting words such as, "I've noticed how hard you are on yourself. I want us to understand why this is happening and talk about these thoughts and feelings." Gently persuade them to answer your questions about the sadness, i.e., How much is it in your thoughts? Does it interfere with sleep? Do you still enjoy your favorite activities?

Find out as much as you can about the child's perceived foundation for their negative self-view. Although we may not agree with their self-assessment it's important to understand it's underpinnings. Listen and don't interrupt nor openly disagree as your child recounts all their reasons. When they're finished suggest that they sound disappointed in themselves and that you know how that feels, too. Explain what you mean by weaving some of their examples into your own personal database of mistakes or limitations. At this point the goal is to help them revise the self-punitive meaning they place upon their"evidence." If they can accept "disappointment in self" in place of "hatred of self" you have helped them take a big step.

Suggest to them that everyone has a "negative voice" that sometimes gets loud and hurtful. One factor that often injures a child's self-esteem is the presence of a harsh conscience. Even young children can be taught about how the conscience is like an "internal policeman" looking over your shoulder, telling right from wrong. "Usually it does a good job of keeping people on the right path but sometimes it makes us think that we should never make mistakes and be great at everything," is one way to introduce the notion of a self-critical negative voice. From that point provide examples of how your own negative voice sounds, perhaps using humor to take some of the sting out of the discussion, i.e., "My conscience is definitely working overtime when I have Grandma and Grandpa over."

Offer the alternative "kind voice" to challenge the punitive one. Coaching more reasonable self-measurement can be placed in the context of "letting the kind voice you use with others also speak to you." Remind them of how they have shown forgiveness, overlooked mistakes in others, and appreciated others for who they are not what they are good at. Explain how this kinder and gentler voice is inside of them but also needs to come out when they are feeling disappointed in themselves. Give examples of how their kind voice might sound afterwards, i.e., "Maybe I can't do this very well but that's okay. I can't be great at everything."

About Dr. Steven Richfield: Known as "The Parent Coach," Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist, parent/teacher trainer, author of "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society" and creator of the Parent Coaching Cards.

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