14-year-old Anu, excited about the upcoming festival, is enthusiastically helping her mother prepare some goodies. Although there isn’t much conversation between them, the festive air, with things to be done, creates a warm atmosphere. Anu’s mother rolls out the dough into perfect circles, carefully folds and presses down the edges, after placing the stuffing on one side. Anu uses the cutter, attempting to give it a neat edge. “Tch, tch, tch,” come the sounds of disapproval from her mother. “You must make it perfect. It looks out of shape. Let me do it.” In that split moment, Anu’s heart sinks as she mutters, “I can never get anything right.” With a tone of despair, she asks, “Why should everything be so perfect?” Her mother quietly continues to do her task while Anu, who is now fearful of making more mistakes, continues to help her. The harmonious atmosphere is destroyed by memories that trigger a flood of emotions, as Anu recalls similar instances of criticism throughout her growing years. She now feels low and inadequate.
What started out as an enjoyable experience for mother and daughter, ended up being stressful for Anu. For the mother, the quality of the task became more important than bonding with her child.
Self-esteem is a broad term used to describe how confident we feel about ourselves in terms of our worth, abilities and attitude towards the self.
The foundation for good self-esteem is laid during your child’s early childhood, with the building blocks of experiences and emotions and how they make sense of them, that is, what she thinks and feels about herself. They are cemented with adult and peer responses - what others think and feel about her.
Simultaneously, your child is experiencing some very important emotional developments. She is beginning to know what guilt and shame feel like, because she now seeks your approval and acceptance. She is getting to know what is important to you and does things to please you. Your attitude toward other children or siblings, and about competition and achievement, will further determine how your child’s self-esteem develops. Her experiences with adults and peers at school also become a strong influence on her self-esteem.
From now on, her goal is to master her world, learn new things, understand and become familiar with people and tasks, and above all, to feel competent and capable of functioning well. She is developing deep-rooted beliefs about herself, based upon the emotions she experiences when you and others interact with her.
Beliefs are the soil in which the roots of self-esteem are nourished. A positive belief in self (‘I sing well,’ or ‘I am a helpful child’) develops when a child experiences joy, comfort, acceptance and appreciation during an event or experience. A negative belief forms when she experiences sadness, humiliation and embarrassment in front of other people (‘I am stupid,’ or ‘People make fun of me’).
These beliefs continue to play out in her life. Young children are more likely to accept and believe the comments others make about them, because their ability to reason is just about developing. These experiences change the structures in her brain. Each experience activates neurons, thus building more connections between various parts of her brain. That’s how her brain is getting rewired. Encouraging words and appreciating her every time she tries, will show her that she is loved, trusted and believed in, wiring her brain with positive neural networks and positive beliefs.
Self-esteem is the result of experiences that help your child become resilient, optimistic and ready-to-seize opportunities. Self-esteem in your child is built on the following beliefs:
- Capable: ‘I can’ – I am learning to do many things on my own. I know my parents will always help me learn.
- Efficient: ‘I try’ - Good things happen when I work hard at something. I learn how it works. I feel nice.
- Acceptance: ‘I am safe’ - I like myself because my parents and teachers like me, and I like them. They take care of me. They help me too.
Love and attention from parents help nurture a child’s growth. The ways in which these are expressed can either make or break his self-esteem. Parental love and attention must enable a child’s growth and abilities. The physical, emotional, social and cognitive boundaries drawn by you must expand as your child grows. This process allows your child to feel a sense of adventure and challenge, experience setbacks and take reasonable risks - all of which contribute to building his self-esteem. His confidence in self increases when he overcomes a hurdle, sees the rewards of effort, celebrates a victory or respects defeat.
You can end up hurting your child if you are overprotective or too controlling of your child. When you overprotect your child, you make him feel fearful and anxious. He, then, becomes timid and vulnerable to bullying. Controlling parents make a child feel suppressed and frustrated and he becomes passive and irritable. These negative feelings rob your child of enthusiasm and courage to explore, learn and experience.
Here are five things you might do that can hurt your child’s self-esteem:
When children feel good about themselves, it sets them up for success in everything – in school, in friendships and in life. Positive feelings like self-acceptance and self-confidence help them try new challenges and cope with mistakes, and makes them more willing to try again. Taking pride in their abilities and accomplishments helps them do their best. Although children may show reluctance and resentment while being corrected, reprimanded and guided, they depend on you to do what is in their best interest. So, do the right thing with respect, compassion, firmness and most importantly with help from your own positive self-esteem.
Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.
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