Instilling self-esteem in your child may be the most difficult job a parent has.
And the process itself, experts say, starts earlier than you might think.
According to Jenna Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Child and Adolescent Program at SBH Behavioral Health Services, “It begins immediately [after they’re born]. Infants are very aware, even if we don’t actually give them credit for this. They feel tension and stress, and love and support. Hugging them and praising them is integral, even in infancy. You know you encourage an infant when the child is learning to walk. If they fall down, you don’t say, ‘Just stay there. You encourage them to get back up and keep trying. It’s less about being perfect and more about the effort and developing confidence in the skill.”
Why is self-esteem so important?
“Self-esteem focuses on a person’s worth and how they feel about themselves,” says Kevin Green, a licensed clinical social worker and a colleague of Cooper’s. “When children believe in themselves it carries over to teenage life and adult life, in being able to say no to risky activities. Standing up for themselves from getting bullied. Being able to deal with stress and similar challenges when they move on with life. As therapists, our job is to help kids and teens and even families to believe in themselves.” Adds Cooper, “Everybody from childhood to adulthood seeks acceptance by others. You need to be able to show confidence in yourself and be able to cope with life’s challenges.”
Cooper and Green treat children and young adults with a variety and a range of mental health issues: ADHD, depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders, PTSD, trauma. People with little self esteem, they say, whether children or adults, are more likely to become depressed. They have a fear of failure. They can get easily frustrated, start acting out and fail to follow rules.
The two clinicians fielded questions about raising a child with self-esteem, with some of their answers somewhat surprising. Here is an excerpt of the interview:
Who is most important when it comes to instilling self-esteem and getting kids to feel good about themselves? Is it parents, peers or teachers?
COOPER: I think it’s a combination of everyone. Our identities are enmeshed with our peer relationships as we get older. In infancy and early childhood though, it’s your parents who are so significant in your developing self-esteem and confidence, and once you enter school, the other adults in your life hold a really important place in that process. But it all starts with our parents, who have a significant role in the process.
If your child brings you a project they’ve worked on and you know it’s not their best work, is it a mistake to overpraise them? Similarly, is it a good idea to give every child on a team a trophy, as most youth leagues do, or should only those who do something special be awarded?
COOPER: We don’t get a trophy for going to work every day, only when we excel. Instead of praising the child for everything they do, constructive criticism is showing respect for getting the job done, but also offering areas of improvement.
GREEN: Deep down a child knows when it is not their best effort, that they could do better. You say, ‘Wow, you’re a great artist.” If they know that’s not the case, that can lead to a credibility problem.
COOPER: It’s how you say things, how you present them. You don’t want to tell a child “It’s never going to happen [that you’re going to be a great artist or basketball player]. You could say, “You need to work more at this. I think if you practice an extra hour every day you’ll do better.” You should have more realistic conversations with them.
GREEN: I think it’s important for parents to be honest and upfront with their kids, especially as they get older. Is it a good idea to always let your child win?
GREEN: Kids are very shrewd and they know if you’re purposely throwing the game and actually it does impact one’s self-esteem. Part of self-esteem is learning how to handle stress and life’s challenges. So it’s okay for them to lose. It helps with self-control. It helps them through trying new things, taking risks, not giving up so easily.” Is being able to give your children self-esteem something that is intuitive or does it need to be learned?
COOPER: I think it’s a combination.
GREEN: Sometimes we have to model it. Parents at times can feel they are bad parents and we have to help them understand that no one is perfect. There’s a lot of coaching, a lot of modeling. Parents at times tend to overthink.
COOPER: Making a mistake doesn’t make the parent a failure. You can have “do overs” and you can remedy mistakes. Our mistakes and our failures are not a definition of who we are as parents. Does therapy make a difference in helping kids raise their self-esteem?
GREEN: Yes, parents that comply with treatment from day one are more successful, because what they do trickles down to their kids. Children will eventually take ownership of their treatment. A teenager will come in and take the reins. That’s the miracle of therapy.
Parents hate to see their kids struggle and will often advocate for their children, sometimes taking it too far. It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?
COOPER: Yes, being a parent is the hardest job that anyone has. Advocating for a child that needs advocating for is a huge part of being a parent, but so is helping your child understand that in certain situations maybe advocating is not what’s needed. Maybe improving themselves is what’s needed. A parent has to be able to recognize that their child is going to make mistakes and might not be the best, so it means supporting and uplifting the child.
Is it important to find something your child is good at so they will feel good about themselves?
COOPER: Definitely. First steps would be to really start to talk to your child about what they’re interested in and what they enjoy. It’s about helping your child highlight what they like and hone their skills, but also saying you might not be perfect at everything, but let’s develop your interest because the more you develop your skill, the higher your self esteem is going to be.
GREEN: Just really taking an interest in what the kid or teen likes and just listening to them is so important. You don’t want them to get down on themselves. It’s about focusing on progress, rather than just results. Is there a lot of stigmatization around mental health in our community?
COOPER: I think there is around mental health and therapy. It sometimes take more time, more engagement. But I’ve seen where if you can pull the family in, or the kid in, you can make significant progress.
Has the advent of telehealth, which started during the pandemic, made a difference?
GREEN: As therapists, it gives us the opportunity to see everything unfold in real time.
COOPER: It shows us their home environment. We can’t eradicate poverty and under education. We can’t eradicate racism. We can’t help a single mother renting a room with three kids, a 16-year-old a 10-year-old and an eight year old, get a bigger apartment. But we can help families learn to live within their environment.
Do you have any final words to offer?
COOPER: It comes down to giving your child unconditional love and positive feedback versus focusing on the negative.
GREEN: Parents need to come from a place where they focus on their child’s strengths, rather than saying, “Oh, you are so lazy.” The more positive the feedback, the more confidence and belief in themselves they’ll have.