Think about it for a moment. Does your son have an older sister who excels in school while he brings home C’s and D’s? What about your star on the baseball team? What are his siblings like? Do you have a child who doesn’t seem to take interest in learning the piano, playing sports or any extracurricular activity?What about Kyle who takes little interest in school despite his above average IQ? If this sounds like someone you know, this child may be suffering from low self esteem. Conversely, we probably know the plain Jane who became prom queen, the fragile Fred who lettered later on in sports, and the average Joe who is now CEO of his company. What made the difference? They believed in themselves. Their family believed in them.
Sometimes, children set unrealistic goals for themselves; other times, they feel that they can’t measure up to the expectations others have for them. It’s only natural to want your children to succeed in life, but when parents use criticism instead of encouragement, the results can be a rebellious child who feels little self worth.
Thinking controls our beliefs which control our actions. Remember that bedtime story you probably have committed to memory about the little engine that could? When he keeps thinking that he can (I think I can, I think I can…), he does succeed in getting to the top of the hill. Maybe it’s time to dust off that Little Golden Book and read it again. Grandparents may remember a song from the 60’s that proclaims, “What makes this little ole ant think that he can move that rubber tree plant?”. Answer, “We all know that he can’t, but he’s got high hopes…oops there goes another rubber tree plant”. Silly, yes, but there is some truth here. Parents who feel that their children will fail let them know by words or body language. Usually the kids either won’t attempt an “impossible feat” or live up to their parent’s expectations—here, failure.
What else does low self esteem look like? It’s found in activities where children do feel accepted such as fighting, drinking, drugs, gangs, and sexual promiscuity. These are negative ways of gaining attention and belonging, but it feels better to them than discouragement. It’s also important to realize that sometimes an unexpected change of environment can pull the rug out from under a previously well performing child. Katrina has shown us several examples of this. Take for example Liz, the B student from a lower functioning school district who is relocated to one with higher standards. This child may feel that she lost her smarts in the storm along with everything else, and begin to give up and withdraw if not given encouragement for what she is accomplishing. And what about Al’s hopes for a football scholarship when he wasn’t able to even play his senior year because he was relocated after the season started and possibly his records washed away in the floodwaters?
So, what happens to turn our good intentions as parents into the outcome of a child feeling that they have no value as a person? The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of excellence. There are ways to instill high self esteem in your children. The most important thing to do is to believe in them. “Yes, I know that it takes you longer to do your homework, but I know that you can do it.” There will always be someone richer, smarter, prettier or stronger—avoid comparing your child with others. Give your child credit for the effort to improve—a D becomes a C, or they sell their entire World’s Finest Chocolate but don’t win the contest for most bars sold. To push for a bigger success or a winner says to the child that they aren’t good enough. Always finding fault seems to be a part of our society (think FEMA, politicians), but everyone has strengths which can be pointed out and encouraged. Maybe you have a future rocker instead of a concert pianist, but they do love music! They are not perfect just as we are not perfect, but we need to focus on the strengths and learn from the mistakes.
Finally, as parents, learn to see your own strengths and take satisfaction in your own accomplishments. Your own self worth should not be measured by your child’s failures or successes.