Question: My little boy, who is six, is an only child. He is very lovable, kind, intelligent, strong-willed, but he tends to lack self-esteem. He tends to self-loathe and often says he hates himself.
He doesn’t accept praise without putting his negativity on it. He gets so easily defeated too and says he feels sad a lot. We are a high-risk family and have been mainly home-schooling due to Covid-19. As a result, we are only slowly getting back into normal life. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much social interaction in the last two years since the pandemic began.
I would love to know how to react to my son’s negative outbursts and help him build self-esteem. Thanks.
Answer: Over the last two years the pandemic has taken its toll on children’s mental health. With long periods of lockdown and a loss of their normal activities and school life, many children have experienced a great setback in their social development. Children are showing increased rates of anxiety and lower levels of self-esteem and social confidence. These challenges can appear as negativity, rumination, self-criticism, and loathing as you seem to be experiencing with your little boy. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to help him, and thoughtful and sensitive parenting can make a big difference.
When your son has a negative outburst, the most important thing you can do is respond empathetically. Sometimes we can easily dismiss a child’s feelings, especially when they are overly negative – “don’t say that” or “that is a silly thing to say”. However, that can make them feel bad and does not help them understand their feelings.
Instead, try to accurately name what your son might be feeling and encourage him to say more. For example, if you son says, “I hate myself”, you might say “you sound very frustrated. . . tell me what is bothering you”. If he says he is sad, see it is a good thing that he is able to express his feelings and gently inquire as to what is making him sad. With a young child of six years, a warm, soothing tone of voice is most important. Physical contact such as a hug or back rub might help as you encourage him to say more. Sometimes a good cry and a cuddle alleviates many negative feelings.
Persist in praise and encouragement
When he rejects praise, gently persist and modify your approach to make sure your positive message gets through. For example, if he experiences a disappointment you might say, “you did these ones really well”, or “ well I think you did your best and that is what matters”. If he says he “hates himself”, you could respond by simply saying, “well I love you”, or you could specifically respond to the trigger for this negative self-statement. For example, if he says it when overwhelmed, you could just draw him closer to soothe him: “you are just frustrated. . . you are working too hard. . . let’s have a break and a hug”.
You can also try to help him modify his negative dialogue. For example, when he says “I hate myself”, you might say, “that is not a nice thing to say to yourself. . . I think you should be kinder to yourself. . . why not say I did my best and that is what matters”. Once again, having a soothing tone of voice (rather than a critical one) is really important as you offer this encouragement. You want to model a softer and warmer voice that he will hopefully internalise in his own inner dialogue.
Have a recovery plan
As we now collectively come out of the pandemic, have a recovery plan for your son that allows him to restart his childhood and to get back into normal life. Think of all the different social, sports and extra-curricular activities he could start.
Identify extended family members and family friends that might be able to help. If as a high-risk family you are still concerned about Covid-19, make a plan to do this gradually and safely so that you all feel comfortable. As I don’t know the specifics of your situation, I would advise you to seek appropriate medical advice as you plan your next steps as a family.
Building your son’s self-esteem
Self-esteem and wellbeing for young children is built on several key foundations. These include warm relationships with their parents, friendships and social experiences with other children and adults, having good learning opportunities, engaging in activities they love and are passionate about, and good health habits (eg physical activity, and eating and sleeping well). As you think about how you can improve your son’s self-esteem, identify ways you can improve the quality of his experience in each of these domains.
How can you introduce more fun and enjoyable experiences into his life that give him an opportunity to learn and to express his talents?
How can you build his relationships outside the family and give him the opportunity to make friends?
Of course, as parents you have a key role in building your son’s self-esteem. Keep your relationship warm and understanding and create a family routine that includes lots of fun (daily play time together), physical activity (family walks to the park), and learning (reading at bedtime).
John Sharry, Irish Times Parenting Q&A 7th March 2022