During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.
For as long as I can remember, I've struggled with low self-esteem. For those fortunate enough to lack understanding of what that means, it's like going through life with a magnifying mirror on your face and seeing every blemish exposed to the world. You feel deep shame and want to hide from everyone, convinced you're not worthy of being seen or heard.
I Wanted My Sons to Have High Self-Esteem Even Though I Didn't
When pregnant for the first time, I knew I had to exam my own upbringing so I wouldn't damage my child like my parents did to my siblings and me. I couldn't bear to see low self-esteem stifle and sideline our family's next generation as it had previous ones. More than anything else, I wanted to give my kid a sense of worthiness, of having a voice, of being an integral part of the world, and not feeling shame and wanting to hide like I had.
I was born in the 1960's when boosting a child's self-esteem was not yet the subject of parenting books and television talk shows. My father reared us with the mantra little children should be seen, not heard just like his parents had done with him. By looking back at the beliefs that guided how my mom and dad parented, I clearly saw the mistakes that were made. With this new-found awareness, I vowed to do better in five critical ways so my sons would feel good about themselves and not be crippled by self-doubts.
1. Validate Their Feelings
With hectic lives at work and home, parents are often frazzled. Getting to their jobs on time, picking up groceries, helping with homework, and keeping up with the daily technology flow typically takes priority over listening to children open up about their emotions. If a daughter feels sad about not getting the lead role in a play, Mom may respond dismissively: “It's not a big deal. You shouldn't feel that way. You had a big part in the last show.” If a son feels bad about getting a C on his geometry exam, Dad may console him by joking: “Oh, don't worry about that. You'll never use that crap in the real world.”
While remarks like these seem innocuous, denying a child's inner world can have dire consequences. In extreme cases, it can cause youngsters to stuff their emotions with drugs, alcohol, food, or sex. In milder cases, it can cause them to feel disconnected from their parents—not seen and not understood. Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, a psychologist who specializes in family therapy, says that while validating a youngster's feelings takes time, patience, and effort, the benefits are numerous, They include a stronger parent-child bond with more communication and a deeper trust. Validating feelings not only boosts children's self-esteem but enhances their overall emotional well-being.
Feelings are neither right nor wrong. They just are.
2. Celebrate Their Uniqueness
My parents always prided themselves on being fair with their four children and treating us all the same. The problem was we were totally different people with unique personalities, talents, and needs. By acting as if we were indistinguishable, they made us feel invisible. Each one of us grew up struggling with self-esteem issues and continue to do so today well into our middle years.
I was an introvert, who needed solitude to recharge my batteries and feel sane. My mom and dad never recognized my introversion so they couldn't help me understand it. They saw my desire to be alone as peculiar so I became convinced there was something terribly wrong with me.
Parents can celebrate each child's uniqueness only when they take time to discover it. Asking them questions, listening to their answers, and spending time with them is the best way to help kids become confident, happy, and well-adjusted. Over-programming them with music lessons, sports practices, and clubs makes them believe that mom and dad only value them for what they do and not who they are, what they think, and how they feel.
Parenting expert, Dr. Shefali Tsabary, says there's no quick path to boosting self-esteem; parents must be present and empathetic.
3. Listen and Don't Lecture
Boosting children's self-esteem should involve daily interaction with them: listening, talking, discovering their opinions, and getting to know what makes them tick. There are no shortcuts. Moms and dads fall into negative habits—nagging, complaining, criticizing, and lecturing—when they're parenting on-the-fly to just get through the day rather than parenting with intention and long-range goals.
According to Debbie Pincus, a licensed mental health counselor, nagging and lecturing aren't effective. When parents engage in these behaviors, they're trying to exert control over their kids. While these tactics may work in the short-term, they will ultimately result in kids tuning out, fighting back, and silently resisting. Nagging and lecturing are desperate measures moms and dads use when they see their youngsters getting off track. They're used out of fear, not good parenting.
Enlightened moms and dads stay in their own lanes and don't become emotionally enmeshed with their children. They model healthy behavior by being in control of their own lives and don't become overly involved in their children's. They rear confident kids by stepping back and letting make their own choices. They let them fail, get in jams, suffer the consequences, and learn from it all. They know their job is to prepare kids for adulthood, not shelter them from life.
Some of the most important things you can communicate to a child are that feelings are OK, mistakes are fixable, and there's nothing they could do that would push you away or make you love them less. Behavior is not perfect; it is communication. Embrace the imperfect and show your child they are worth holding close to your heart. No matter what.
— Kelly Bartlett
4. Have Reasonable Expectations
Impatience, frustration, and misunderstandings occur when parents have no concept of age appropriate behavior for their kids. Having unrealistic expectations can set up parents for disappointment. This, in turn, can make kids feel bad about themselves and chip away at their self-esteem.
When I taught preschool, some moms and dads would be horrified if their child snatched a toy from the hand of another kid. They thought they had failed as parents and their youngster was destined for reform school. According to a Swiss study conducted at the University of Zurich, though, children don't develop altruism and a desire to share until they're 7 or 8. Until that point, they're largely egocentric and do what's best for them. With that knowledge, parents can stop worrying that they're rearing brats and realize their kids are normal.
Likewise, teenagers and young adults are apt to make poor decisions because their brains aren't fully developed until age 25 or so. Parents with this knowledge have more appropriate expectations and don't assume all young people are knuckleheads with no ambition and no common sense. They're also more alert to the risky behaviors that young people may engage in, not considering the consequences such as driving too fast, having unprotected sex, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
Dr. Shefali Tsabary says parents make their children stronger and more confident when their connect with their inner world.
5. Let Kids Be Kids
When I was growing up, my parents had a rocky marriage and my mother turned to me for support and comfort. She didn't have many friends her own age and didn't want to confide in anyone outside our immediate family. While becoming her advisor was a heady experience at the time, it caused me to grow up too fast and miss a carefree childhood. This parentification had long-range implications for me: damaging the relationship with my father, isolating me from peers, and destroying my self-esteem.
According to Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., parents should not burden kids with their personal adult issues. When moms and dads share their financial worries, job hassles, and romantic problems, kids get overwhelmed. They may want to fix the problems but aren't equipped to do so, making them feel helpless and depressed.
When moms and dads get tempted to confide in their children, they should view it as a sign to get professional help. They may need to see a therapist, join a support group or, at the very least, find peers who can listen and offer support. Whatever they decide to do, it's imperative they end the role reversal. Otherwise, they'll negatively impact their child's development, damage their self-esteem, and hurt their overall emotional well-being.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 McKenna Meyers
McKenna Meyers (author) on March 14, 2017:
Thanks, Bill. My sons have good self-esteem so I'm happy about that. I must have done something right as a mom!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 13, 2017:
This is such an important topic. I was a bit surprised, when I started teaching, how many kids had low self-esteemed. I don't know why that surprised me, since I had it as a child, but it did. Anyway, great topic and suggestions.