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How can parents foster self-esteem in their children?

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GreatSchools Blog

By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

3. Reinforcing responsibility by having children contribute

Self-esteem and resilience are nurtured when children are asked to contribute to their world and to the well-being of others. In my research and clinical work, I have found that one of the most effective ways of boosting self-worth and motivation is to communicate to our children, "You have something of value to offer; your presence makes a positive difference in the lives of others."

The basic message from parents to their children should be "We need your help." The specific activities can include having certain household responsibilities or involving our children in helping us at a soup kitchen or delivering food for the elderly or going for a walk for one's favorite charity. These "contributory activities" serve to strengthen a child's self-worth and dignity and provide the encouragement and motivation to attempt tasks that have proved problematic in the past. We must remember that success begets future success.

Our children's islands of competence can guide us in the tasks we offer them to help others. One teenage girl with learning problems loved interacting with younger children. Her parents affectionately referred to her as the "Pied Piper of the block." Her sense of responsibility increased greatly when she was asked to watch two neighborhood siblings one afternoon a week. A 10-year-old boy with school difficulties volunteered one afternoon a week at a local nursing home, playing chess or checkers with the residents. This activity nurtured his confidence.

4. Learning from, rather than feeling defeated by, mistakes

All children are concerned about making mistakes and looking foolish. However, youngsters with learning problems typically experience more failure situations than their peers who do not have these problems and, thus, are even more vulnerable and fearful about failing. Attribution theory indicates children with high self-esteem view mistakes as experiences from which to learn, while their counterparts with low self-esteem perceive mistakes as things they cannot change, often prompting them to avoid or retreat from tasks. If we are to raise resilient children, it is essential to help them develop a more positive attitude towards mistakes.

How best to do this? In part, we can be guided by two questions that I often ask in my parenting workshops and in my clinical work. They are:

  • "What do your children observe when you make a mistake?"
  • "What do you do when your children make mistakes?"

In terms of the first question, we serve as models for our children. It is for this reason I often ask children to describe how their parents act when they (the parents) make mistakes. Children who grow up in homes in which parents model effective ways of coping with mistakes will respond, "They joke about it," "They say it's not a big deal," "They wonder what they can do differently next time." Unfortunately, I have also heard the following, "They scream," "They curse," "They quit." One of the most memorable responses came from a boy who asked me, "What's a double martini?" Obviously, his parents were not modeling an effective way of dealing with frustration.

Shifting to the second question, parents must examine how they respond to their children's mistakes. Out of frustration, some parents have said to their kids with learning problems, "I told you it wouldn't work!" or "You don't try hard enough!" or "Why don't you use your brains!" When children make mistakes, they need our support, and we should use a problem-solving approach. They should hear us say, "That's okay. Let's figure out how we can succeed next time." We should also prepare our children for the possibility of mistakes by saying in advance, "If this doesn't work, there are other things we can attempt."

Remember, one of the most important things we can do to promote high self-esteem and resilience in our children is to help them deal comfortably with obstacles, mistakes, and setbacks.

5. Special needs or feeling special

Self-esteem and hope are nurtured when we convey appreciation and unconditional love to our children. Although political and funding issues prohibit us from abandoning the term "special needs," I have frequently entertained the idea of replacing the words with a sign in front of every home and school that reads, "Every child who enters these doors needs to feel special." To use Julius Segal's description, we must strive to be the "charismatic adult" in our children's lives, an adult from whom they "gather strength."

Children will feel loved when we create special times alone with them each day or week. I recommend that parents of young children say to them, "When I read or play with you, it's such a special time that even if the phone rings, I won't answer it." Designating these special times is especially important for youngsters with learning and attention problems who often feel they have let themselves and others down. One boy with learning difficulties told me what a "disappointment" he was to his parents. Thus, with these youngsters, we must be even more sensitive to their need to feel our unconditional love.

I often think about a 5-year-old boy with attention problems who believed correctly that his father was disappointed and angry with him. I empathized with this father's frustration, and we discussed ways in which to help his son begin to feel special in his father's eyes. This father scheduled a "private time" once a week, which involved going to a local donut shop for breakfast before school. The boy proudly told me about this "private time" with his dad, a time that served as a catalyst for improving their relationship and helping the child feel loved and accepted-cornerstones of self-esteem.

In my next article, I will describe interventions schools can adopt to complement the actions of parents in fostering self-esteem, hope, and resilience in students with learning problems.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/1/2012:
"Thank you for the Article. Our 6 year old son is having difficulties with Reading and Writing. your article was very helpful. "
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