Children must be actively encouraged to feel good about themselves if they are to lead fruitful and satisfying lives
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness” – Sigmund Freud
A FREQUENT concern for the many parents I work with is their children’s self-esteem. Parents worry their children have low confidence or feel self-critical or negative about themselves. Sometimes their concerns are localised to a particular area such as a child being shy or having trouble making friends or feeling disconnected or struggling at school.
In many cases, and especially with older children, these feelings can present as depression or low mood and parents can become worried about this as they head into the teenage years. When parents hear their children expressing self-doubt or making negative self-statements, naturally they want to find ways to improve their confidence and to help them to feel better emotionally.
When faced by these situations in clinical practice, I have come to realise that often parents are not thinking about the problem in a way that might easily lead to a solution.
The importance of self-esteem and feeling good about oneself is only a relatively recent concept in psychology. The “positive” psychologist, Martin Seligman, links it to the development of personality psychology that replaced the notion of virtue and character, which had been the traditional guiding factors in parenting. The goal of traditional parenting was to instil character and to teach their children virtue and how to live the good life.
Psychologists, nervous about using value-laden language, replaced these terms with the more neutral ones of personality and reset the goal of parenting to one of helping children have good self-esteem. The idea is that children who feel good about themselves will invariably act responsibly. However, by doing so they may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Paradoxically, it is by leading a life of social responsibility that we gain self- esteem rather than the other way round. Good self-esteem is the fruit of a life of hard work, developing one’s strengths and talents, and expressing them is the service of others.
Valuing self-esteem and feeling good about oneself is not just one that is limited to the psychology of parenting but rather one that is reflected in modern society. It is reflected in our obsession with celebrity where people are famed for no reason, or because of their attractiveness and certainly not because of their talents or any contribution they have made. It is evident in the “me generation” who want all their needs satisfied instantly.
Such instant gratification is generally unsatisfying and, ironically, probably results in low self-esteem. This is distinct from the more traditional idea that the most rewarding projects are those that exercise our talents, that we work hard at, and that make a meaningful contribution.
How to build self esteem in children in 3 steps
So what does this mean concretely for a parent worrying about their child’s low self-esteem? The first thing to realise is that you can inadvertently support your child’s lack of self-esteem by striving to make them feel good about themselves, by molly-coddling and doing everything for them, by surrounding them by passive activities such as TV that require no talent, effort or commitment. To encourage true self-esteem, children need to be challenged positively and crucially be encouraged to take responsibility for as much as possible in their lives at an early age. This means not doing anything for a child that they can do for themselves. This starts with allowing your toddler to enjoy the success of getting dressed by himself, ensuring your children take pride in chores and helping out, and giving teenagers responsibility for household projects.
Secondly, you encourage your children’s self- esteem by helping them discover their passions and talents and help them express these in a meaningful way. This means noticing what drives and interests your children, and encouraging them to become involved in activities that express this.
The best activities are the ones that your child is prepared to put time into, which are challenging and require effort and which they can share with others – activities like sport, dancing, scouts, creative hobbies, caring for a pet all fit this bill. Even solitary activities such as reading or crafts, can work in the same way once there is opportunity to share the work with others.
Helping your child express their talents in good activities is not only a boost to their confidence, it is often the best way for them to form good friendships. Doing things we love is the best way to connect with others. The lives of shy children can be transformed by them finding their niche, which allows them to perform at their best and brings them into the company of others who share their passion.
Thirdly, you can encourage your children to contribute socially and to become involved in worthwhile projects. It is a huge boost to a child’s self-esteem to know that what they are doing matters and makes a difference. Simple things like doing the shopping for an elderly neighbour or caring for siblings or more formally volunteering with a local charity all make a difference. Even young children can be helped to contribute in this way such as by donating some of their toys or doing a sponsored walk for a charity.
In encouraging a child’s self-esteem we want to encourage them to take action and responsibility. Self-esteem is not passively waiting to be filled up with good feelings, it is about taking action courageously and using your talents to help others. In the long term good self-esteem is about helping children find their niche in life, to create loving relationships and to make a difference.
Dr John Sharry is child and family psychotherapist, author and trainer. He is delivering a series of pubic parenting talks in the Clarion Hotel IFSC, Dublin 1, starting on February 22. See www. solutiontalk.ie for details.