‘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 frequently worry that 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 particularly 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 feel better emotionally.
When they come to me, they directly ask me how they can improve their child’s self-esteem. When faced with these situations in clinical practice, I have come to realise that often parents are asking the wrong question or certainly not thinking about the problem in a way that will easily lead to a solution.
The importance of self-esteem and feeling good about oneself as a concept is only a relatively recent one 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 terms, 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. Self-esteem and feeling good about yourself is the not the goal you should have, but rather the by-product of efforts to live a good life in the service of others.
Good self-esteem is the fruit of a life of hard work, developing one’s strengths and talents and expressing them in the service of others.
The valuing of self-esteem and feeling good about oneself ( rather than virtue and contribution) 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 simply because of their attractiveness or confidence 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 without any notion of merit or having to work hard for their achievements. Such instant gratification is generally unsatisfying at a deeper level and ironically probably results in with ‘low self-esteem’.
This is distinct from the more traditional idea that the most rewarding projects are the ones that exercise our talents, that we work hard at, and that makes a meaningful contribution.
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 ( such as gardening, decorating or caring for a pet).
Secondly, you encourage your children’s self-esteem by helping them discover their individual 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 (e.g. sharing what has been read, using what has been made etc).
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 meaningful friendships. Doing the things that 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 contribute in this way such as 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.
You want to support your children to discover their talents and interests, challenge them to make the most of what they have and to encourage to take responsibility and make a contribution.
In the biblical parable of the talents, the person judged the most harshly, was not the person who tried to use their talents and failed but the person who out of fear buried their talents and did not use them at all. I suspect that this resulted in the latter person suffering from the lowest self-esteem as well!
SUMMARY – BUILDING YOUR CHILD’S SELF-ESTEEM
From an early age as possible encourage your child to take responsibility for things in their lives. In concrete terms this means teaching your toddler to dress themselves, letting children take responsibility for chores etc.
The key is to take time to teach your children their new responsibilities. Done well this teaching can be a source of connection between the two of you.
– What responsibilities do your children currently have?
– What responsibilities could you hand over to them?
– How could you teach them?
Stimulate your Child’s Passions
The biggest gift you can give your children is to help them discover and explore their passions, talents, and strengths.
– What projects evoke your child’s interest and commitment?
– What are your child’s unique talents and strengths?
– What activities allow them to express these talents?
Encourage your Children to Contribute Socially
Help your children think of ways they can help others and become involved in socially meaningful activities.
– Establish family rituals such as visiting sick or elderly neighbours or supporting charities that your children can become involved in from an early age.
Prof. John Sharry, originally published in The Irish Times
John will give an online talk for parents on ‘Building Resilience and Self-Esteem in Children and Teenagers’ on Wednesday 1st June 2022. Click here for details.