My Child Has Low Self-Esteem — After All My Efforts!

Q: Before I married, I vowed that I would make sure that my children would have good self-esteem — by seeing role models in my husband and myself. I was determined to shower our children with compliments and praise, because I saw the difference in the quality of life between those who felt confident in their abilities and those who did not.

But things haven’t turned out exactly the way I wanted them to. My 10-year-old daughter, who does not excel academically, interestingly has a lot of self-esteem, particularly when it comes to friends and social situations. She gets lots of phone calls from classmates, and she doesn’t seem to be knocked down by her average grades.

On the other hand, our 12-year-old son, who does do well academically, is often not sure of himself and questions his general abilities. It’s not that he’s depressed or anything, but I feel very bad that all the effort that I’ve put in hasn’t helped improve his self -esteem.

I know that people are born with certain tendencies to have either high or low self-esteem, but when he questions himself, I feel as if I’m a failure as a parent.

The truth is, my husband and I have both gone through medical challenges that made it difficult to continually show the self-confident, positive parental figures that I would have liked to project. The fact is, our bitachon did develop through our trials and tribulations, but the issue of self-esteem still remains. Is there anything you recommend doing at this point?

A: It is never too late to bolster a child’s self-esteem, or motivate children to make changes in their lives. Every team player benefits from a coach who believes in them, and helps them after they suffer a setback.

If parents are challenged with medical difficulties, self-care becomes of utmost concern. It is a juggling act to at the same time concentrate on taking care of one’s many medical needs, and then also focus on building the self-esteem of others.

That being said, there were probably acts of courage and wisdom that your children internalized just by observing how their parents were able to be omed b’nisayon. If you did indeed strengthen your bitachon, and your children clearly observed this, they saw a role model of excellent coping mechanisms. Great as self-esteem may be, there is no greater gift that a parent can give to their child than the constructive coping mechanisms. It is a wonderful thing when a person can deal with life’s disappointments with equanimity, and not be continually fluctuating emotionally. Much more can be achieved when “drama” does not impinge upon daily functioning.

With regard to building self-esteem now, one powerful technique is that of utilizing positive praise. In my therapy sessions, I often ask parents to write lists of specific positive adjectives to describe each of their children. (This assignment is often an eye-opener to parents when they realize that they are able to assign only a few positive adjectives to a certain child. One can imagine how his child’s self-esteem is lacking.)

These positive adjectives need to reflect the parents’ value system, as children instinctively pick up their parents’ priorities in life. The more the words resonate with the soul, the more powerful will be the effect. (Any trait that might be temporary — such as academic marks or physical beauty — should not be included in this list.)

An example of this could be: “I can just imagine what a great father you’ll be one day. You’re such a good listener, and you take people’s feelings so seriously.” Any child would cherish such words!

Another example could be: “Your loyalty to your sister is amazing! The way you always bring home snack is so special! The way you always think of others is a gift that you’ll have forever.”

Such positive affirmations can truly penetrate the heart and soul and increase self-esteem.