Even in the best of times, all of us need something to keep us going, something to keep us inspired, something to drive us to take the next step – this ‘something’ is self-esteem. It goes hand-in-hand with confidence to establish a healthy understanding of our abilities and individuality. After all, it only creates a mental atmosphere of happiness and contentment. “Abraham Maslow theorised that self-esteem is a need for every individual that has to be fulfilled in order to reach one’s maximum potential. Therefore, it is important for parents to nurture an environment that fosters the development of healthy self-esteem in their children,” says Priyanka Joseph, Counsellor and Psychotherapist, Medall Behavioral Health Services, Chennai.
Key to raising confident children
As far as our child’s well-being and happiness is concerned, we leave no stone unturned. However, we sometimes get over-zealous in our efforts to protect her from hurt and failure. Especially in the context of modern parenting, children often become dependent and withdrawn because they lack experience to build self-worth.
Priyanka says, “Children with high self-esteem are confident about themselves and their skills. They are more likely to sustain healthy relationships, be efficient problem-solvers and decision-makers, develop a healthy and strong identity and be more resilient to failures. They are also likely to grow up to be happy and successful adults.”
Developmental studies show that children’s self-confidence initially depends a lot on parental behaviour. Later, the role of educators and peers also helps shape this confidence. “Children are not born with high or low self-esteem. Their evaluation of themselves and their skills develop right from the time they are born. Since parents are their first interaction with the outside world, parents’ response to their needs and wants, efforts, failures and accomplishments will determine how they view themselves. Self-esteem is an ongoing process; it is learned and can be changed,” advises Priyanka.
Spotting low self-esteem
While certain tips can go a long way in instilling a sense of self-confidence in children, it cannot be discounted that each child is unique. While some children have a basic temperament that is ripe for confidence and resilience, others need support to find their sense of self. “Self-esteem is a basic need for every human being. Therefore, when it is inadequate, the effects turn out to be pervasive and cumulative over one’s lifetime,” says Priyanka. The following signs might help you determine if your child is struggling with issues of low self-esteem:
Self-critical behaviour: A child might constantly brood over a sense of insufficiency, characterised by statements like, ‘I can’t do anything right’, or, ‘I am very bad at sports’.
Avoiding new tasks and challenges: A child who has low self-esteem might be unwilling to take on any new challenge for fear of falling short.
Behavioural issues: Lying, rude behaviour, talking back, social withdrawal and reluctance to go to school might be manifestations arising from a severe lack of confidence.
Overly sensitive to feedback: Whether praise or criticism, a child with low self-esteem might be extremely sensitive of others’ opinion of him.
Unable to deal with failure: Even in small tasks, such children might not be able to tolerate any shortcomings and might spend a lot of time brooding.
Here are some tips to help raise a self-confident child:
Be realistic in setting goals
In a world which is increasingly result-oriented, we sometimes get ahead of ourselves in setting goals for our children. We want them to succeed, of course, but success cannot be measured on one scale alone. We should take into account our child’s capacity and unique talent. “Parents, who demand a lot from children and keep discouraging or withholding appreciation, can cause their children to be deprived of self-worth. Even a simple 'you can do better' phrase can be discouraging because the focus is more on what can be done and less on what's already been done by the child,” says Priyanka.
Offer plenty of encouragement
Encouragement is the key to giving children the much-needed moral boost. Praise can be used effectively as a tool for positive reinforcement. Notice and applaud a child’s effort rather than the result. According to Priyanka, parental encouragement and appreciation plays a huge role in developing a child's self-esteem. A child needs validation when there is an accomplishment, when a task is done well and when an instruction is followed correctly. "However, it does not mean showering the child with praise for every action, as it might do more harm than good,” she cautions.
Be a good role model
Children pick up most behavioural patterns from their parents. Priyanka explains, “Children learn most from what parents do, rather than what they say. So, parents who are too harsh on themselves, who are pessimistic or have unrealistic expectations of themselves, exaggerate their inabilities and personalise their failures, are likely to be unintentionally teaching their children the same. Parents must take care to nurture their own self-esteem to serve as an effective role model.”
Don’t be overprotective
Allow children to test their own limits and don’t let that panicky voice in your head interfere. The next time your kindergartner gets into a scuffle with a friend at the park, allow him to sort out the situation instead of rushing to his rescue. Parenting and wellness consultant, Debmita Dutta says, “I think parents need to understand that a lot of learning comes from making mistakes. Instead of bubble-wrapping our children and trying to protect them, allow them to pick themselves up and move forward.” Overcoming small challenges is a good character-building exercise. According to Priyanka, parents must encourage and support children to take healthy risks while also supporting them when they carry out their decisions or choices. Debmita sums up this aspect in a fabulous one-liner. “For children to believe in themselves they need to understand that their parents believe in them too,” she says.
Teach them acceptance
The foundations of healthy self-esteem is in accepting ourselves as we are. “Parents must encourage children to accept their strengths and weaknesses and work on them. Such self-awareness is essential to developing positive self-esteem. Parents should also make children understand that their love is unconditional. If children feel that their parent’s love and acceptance is contingent on their accomplishments or success, they will also love or accept themselves only when they accomplish something. This will result in children feeling unworthy each time they fail,” says Priyanka.
Little ones love a little bit of responsibility. The next time you take your little one to the super market, let him help you pick the stuff off the shelf. When eager little hands offer help, allow them to water the plants in the garden and appreciate their effort (even if it’s a little messy!). Showing children that you trust them with little tasks and making them responsible for those duties not only makes them feel grown up, but also boosts their self-esteem to a great extent.
Role of schools
Arundhati Swamy, a Guidance counsellor and member of the Chennai Counsellors’ Foundation and a member of the advisory board here at ParentCircle, believes educators play a large role in instilling a good sense of self-esteem in children. Here are a few suggestions from her to schools:
Focus on Teacher Development: To instil confidence in students, it is essential that the teachers themselves have good self-esteem. When teachers feel good about themselves and what they do, they become empowered to connect with their students emotionally and are compassionate in their interactions.
Employ New Teaching Methodology: Education system has come a long way and teachers need to understand that innovative teaching methods need to be employed.
Avoid Reprimanding: Scolding or punishing students makes them feel humiliated and affects their self-esteem. Teachers need to be firm, but learn to reprimand in ways that do not make the child feel insecure.
Mental Health Policy: Schools need to establish a sound policy to ensure that the emotional and psychological needs of students don’t get ignored. Children need to know that their school is a space where they can feel safe, both physically and emotionally, for them to develop a healthy sense of self.
As Matthew Jacobson, the American author, said, “Behind every young child who believes in himself is a parent who believed first.” So, let us all strive to be parents who believe in our children and, thereby, raise a confident generation.