Get real to help build self-esteem in children

 In Opinion

In 20 years of therapy work with parents, children, youth, couples, and families, the issue of self-esteem comes up frequently.

Sometimes I wonder if it is me who is always bringing it back to self-esteem, and not the client. But I can’t help seeing the damage of low self-esteem everywhere.

What is self-esteem anyway? The dictionary definition that pops up on my web browser says it is confidence in one’s own worth or abilities, and self-respect. I like to think of it as these three ingredients: self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-assertion. Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself accurately – warts and all.

Self-acceptance is, quite literally, accepting all of the parts of you that you have seen and acknowledged. And self-assertion is the willingness to say what you think and to be your authentic self – warts and all.

Most parents work hard to build our children’s self-esteem. We praise them for artwork, or goals scored, we provide opportunities for them to excel in sports, academics or wherever they show aptitude, and we love them unconditionally. And yet our children still question their worth at times. We live in a world where the standard for performance is based on world-class athletes, movie stars, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. When perfection is the standard, all else becomes failure, witness the frustration and disappointment of the Swedish captain at the recent World Junior Hockey Championships. It’s not good enough to be the second best in the world, apparently.

So how do we help our children when the standards are set so high? Let’s go back to those three key ingredients. We can help our children be self-aware by seeing them accurately. Every child knows when he or she is receiving hollow or false praise. That masterpiece you gushed over and put on the fridge might just be some blobs of paint they happened to like the colour of. Get real with your kids and help them to accept both their imperfections and their genuine achievements. Moreover, use your praise to help them notice the steps that they took to achieve the outcome they got – or didn’t get.

Teach your children self-acceptance by modelling it yourself. Let them know that you are not all-powerful or perfect and that you have your own challenges. After all, it is the norm to be imperfect thank goodness! And learn to accept them for who they are, not for what you hope they will become. Too often we want our children to live out our unmet expectations for ourselves.

And finally, teach your children self-assertion by finding out what they think and feel about their accomplishments and failures. Ask them to tell you how they achieved their successes and what they think led to their failures. Help them learn that it doesn’t just happen by magic or luck, but because they are taking the steps to create a positive outcome for themselves.

All this is easier said than done, and certainly just the tip of the big complicated iceberg that is self-esteem. If you’re wondering where to start – start with you! The best investment in your child’s self esteem is your own self-esteem.

Liz van Ryn is a registered psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She practices at Creekside Therapy

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