As a parent, you want your child to grow up happy and confident, be willing to take risks, try new things and embrace challenges. Helping your child develop healthy self-esteem from an early age provides her or him with a solid foundation as (s)he enters school, starts forming friendships and begins exploring the world.
Here are ten ways that you can help your child develop healthy self-esteem:
1. Use the language of love
Communicate with love, not authority. Encourage your child to speak freely and avoid all criticism, shaming or interruptions. Listen deeply, so you understand and show them that you are interested in what they have to say. Provide support and encouragement not only through your words but also in your tone of voice. Use your voice effectively, never yell. Children listen with their hearts and will remember not what you said, but how you made them feel. Avoid shaming language. Be mindful of verbally blaming your child for your annoyance or anger. “You’re driving me crazy!”, “Can’t you get anything right?”, “Why can’t you get along?”, “Why can’t you listen?”. This type of language serves only to incorporate negative attitudes into their self-perception and can lead to low self-esteem.
2. Our presence as a present: Focus on and be attuned to your child
This presence shows your child that they are loved and that you enjoy spending time with them. Let your child guide the play and choose the things they want to do. These are the first occasions for children to start developing a sense of self as you provide them with the opportunity to make decisions based on their preferences. Try not to say, “No, not now”. Instead, say, “Yes, later”, “Persuade me”, or “Give me 10 minutes”.
3. Help your child find something he or she is good at
Nurturing your child’s talents and abilities will help them to develop a strong sense of self-worth as they mature. Provide them with a variety of early opportunities to discover what they like and what areas they excel in. Celebrate achievements and successes.
4. Use descriptive vs. evaluative praise
Avoid using evaluative words like, “smart, beautiful, good”, as this will feed your child’s need for external validation and set her or him up for some hard times down the road. This kind of praise has the potential to create insecurity, making your child fearful of not living up to your standards. Praise that exaggerates achievements can cause your daughter or son to stop taking risks and trying new things to avoid potential failures as well as rob her or him of the opportunity to learn and grow.
Instead, focus on descriptive praise by noticing and describing your child’s efforts, persistence, strategies and hard work rather than the results. This type of praise is what will instill a sense of self-worth, self-reliance, and confidence. Descriptive praise provides parents with a powerful tool to convey values, shape attitudes and increase cooperation. For example, when your child shows you a picture (s)he has drawn, instead of saying, “It is so beautiful”, you can say, “You worked very hard on your picture and used so many different colours”. From this, they will create their own validation by thinking. “Those colours make my painting unique and I love it”.
5. Set flexible, realistic rules and enforce them consistently
Providing rules and structure allows your child to feel safe and secure and gradually more confident in making their own rules and decisions. Talk about rules as a family, involve your child so rules are fair, decide on consequences in advance, preferably with buy-in from your child. When a rule is violated, consequences should be imposed immediately or as soon as possible.
Discipline is not something we do to children but rather with them. The primary goal is to teach and guide children to learn self-discipline and structure from within rather than have them rely on externally-imposed control. Discipline should be dispensed calmly with compassion, patience, and in a regular tone of voice. When your child steps out of line and breaks the rules, consequences need to be sensible, straight-forward and geared toward teaching responsibility. The main goal of consequences should be to protect your child from harming himself or another and to help your child to internalize rules, structure, and an understanding of acceptable behaviour.
6. Set expectations
Setting well-defined high, but not unattainable, expectations or goals promotes the development of competence in your child. By showing children that aspiring to certain behaviours and goals is worthy and brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, we are encouraging them to strive to develop new skills and abilities. A large part of high self-esteem involves developing a level of competence in areas that you feel are worthy.
7. Model positive behaviour
Meet challenges, setbacks, conflicts, and daily irritants with patience, persistence, and give the best of your abilities. How you handle life’s issues has a significant impact on your child’s self-esteem and how they will learn to deal with the same. You are one of the most important role models that your child will ever have.
8. Practice and model mindful living
Turn off your auto-pilot. Often, in today’s world of technology, we are right beside our children but off in ‘another world.’ Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Mindfulness provides parents with an alternative to habitual or ‘automatic’ reactions by allowing them to stop and shift their awareness to the present moment, being fully focused on their child, while exercising control and thoughtfulness into their actions. It also means accepting that there will be struggles and that parenting can be very challenging at times. However, mindfulness allows us to recognize these challenges and the mistakes we inevitably make as being a normal part of a healthy life. Practice listening with full attention, being attuned to your child’s behavioural cues and verbal communication. Practice non-judgemental acceptance of yourself and your child. Reduce self-criticisms, unrealistic expectations, and appreciate your self-efficacy and your child’s qualities. Practice emotional awareness of yourself and your child by being less dismissive and more responsive to your child’s emotions. If parents can identify both their own and their child’s emotions by bringing mindful awareness to the interaction, they will be able to make conscious choices about how to respond, rather than reacting automatically to these experiences.
9. Provide opportunities to make decisions and problem-solve
Opportunities to make decisions and problem-solving should be age- and developmentally-appropriate so that your child learns they have control over their life. Guide them through the process without judgement and allow them to learn and grow from their choices, even poor ones. This empowerment over situations enhances self-worth and provides them with the precursors to flesh out their sense of self and true identity.
10. Avoid perfection
Perfection permeates our society and is fueled by consumerism, organized religion, schools with incredibly high standards and – if we’re honest with ourselves – as parents, we strive for the impeccable house, the perfect child, to be the ideal parent, and so on. The cause of perfectionism stems from the fear of being criticized and is all about conformity and trying to fit in. Aspiring to this unattainable quality creates unnecessary stress and takes its toll on children as they work hard at not disappointing parents. So how can we shut perfectionism down? Be different and celebrate your differences. Don’t compare yourself to others, but rather, set your own goals and work toward achieving them. Are you growing, learning,achieving? These are what matter most. Model and teach your children the same. Explain that the best gift someone can give themselves and offer another is their unique, genuine, self. Model and teach your child that their value does not depend on their performance or appearance but instead, on being able to be and embrace his or her true self.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Written by: Lindi Ross, M.Ed, PPCC Montreal Therapy Centre