Building Self-Esteem (Part 1)

Q: Last week’s column spoke of building our own self-esteem, as adults, in order to serve as role models for our children. With regard to building self-esteem in our children, we have an 11-year-old daughter who is a difficult child to work with. I’d have to say that she is the most annoying and complaining child among all her siblings. Her academic abilities are limited, and she is often negative in her responses to family members. (She doesn’t always have an attitude problem, though, as she can laugh and enjoy the company of her friends.)

I try to build her self-esteem but it is a challenge, since she is often sarcastic when I do. When I try complimenting her it doesn’t go too far. I’m sure that she views herself as the “problem child,” as she clearly gets the most negative attention, and she realizes that I have a hard time accepting some of the outlandish statements she makes.

Any advice on how to build her self-esteem?

A: Complimenting a child is very important for a parent to do, but it is only, perhaps, believed and accepted when the compliment is very specific. In order for a child to better see his positive attributes, a general process already needs to have been developed — a process in which this compliment reflects these building blocks of self-esteem.

The first step in strengthening a child’s self-esteem is to allow the child self-acceptance. Do we as parents permit our child to have feelings and thoughts that we dislike, or do we invalidate them immediately? Do we honestly accept him as he “presently stands” or do we incessantly push our expectations on him? Our negation of our child’s ideas does not cause them to disappear. This child will merely bury these “unacceptable” feelings, not knowing how to deal with them.

On the other hand, when we accept our child’s feelings as valid, our child will come to accept and appreciate himself as a worthwhile human being. Instead of being overly self-critical, the child will learn that his feelings are worth being shared and discussed.

Another obvious impediment to self-confidence is name-calling, which parents may engage in when they are very frustrated or annoyed. Though most parents realize that this behavior is not acceptable, they do not always know alternative ways of reacting. One needs to try to develop new communication skills to use with one’s children to prevent outbursts (which is another topic of discussion in itself). A parent needs to “role-play” how they will do this, in their minds, to be prepared to give a new type of response. By acquiring new ways of reacting to our son or daughter, one helps to produce a more self-confident child.

Positive reinforcement of desirable actions is a technique used by many parents to encourage their child to choose “good” rather than “bad” behavior. While this method can be quite successful it must be used with caution. While one child alone is rewarded, other siblings may resent this special treatment and harbor jealousy and anger toward this sibling.

In addition, the child may learn to identify himself as the most unruly and misbehaving child in the family. He may wonder why he is the only one among his siblings who’s being singled out for the behavior-modification plan.

In order for a child to have self-esteem, he needs to perceive that he is equal to his brothers and sisters and an integral part of the family. This is called leveling and is a crucial step in building up a child. Children need to feel at least equal to their siblings before feeling positive about themselves.

Let us consider the use of leveling in responding to problematic behavior. When a child has a temper tantrum, for example, how should we react? Giving immediate attention will only cause the child to repeat the tantrums. Ignoring the child will not be effective, since the need for attention will remain unsatisfied. A child needs to be shown, “We accept your need for attention, but we are a unit and work for common goals.” This message can be conveyed by giving the child a lot of attention — not at the moment that she demands it, but when she is involved in social activities such as working with siblings in clean-up and doing homework. Thus, the child will receive attention, and also have a sense of herself as being part of a group effort — thus removing the stigma of being the “problem child.”