I get it, as a mama myself, when parents come into my office and throw up their hands wondering what to do. They feel helpless seeing their child so sad and depressed because he doesn’t feel good about himself; they hear her put herself down and compare herself to others.
Parents want their children to succeed, be great at music or sports or maybe art or science. You throw them into every extracurricular activity and attend every event as their biggest cheerleaders, but what happens when they don’t see what you see? When your son or daughter leaves the basketball court or the drama department stage and tells you he or she feels like the worst player, or the worst actor.
I’ve been there and done that, too. Oh, how many times I’ve wished kids would only come with an instruction manual — it would make building their self esteem so much easier.
In my practice I use several different techniques, many of which have helped families, so I want to share them with you.
1) The “I did it list.” Have your child write down all of his/her accomplishments, big or small. Maybe he scored a touchdown or aced a spelling test. It may be a problem he solved, people he helped, challenges he met. In my house I have my children write out something new they tried; positive risks or decisions that children make are just as important.
2) A “strengths” list. Ask your child how a friend would describe him/her? Write out all of her positive characteristics. If she has a difficult time you can always throw some examples in, such as “what about that one time you shared your lunch? You were being kind, thoughtful and helpful.”
3) Share a childhood story of your own that illustrates the “uniqueness” of self. For example I tell my children about the time that I froze up in Spanish class when I had to spit out a complete sentence — I quickly learned that was one language I couldn’t learn. But how I loved playing softball, and with a whole lot of practice, I could knock a ball out into left field. Examples such as this one will help children learn more about what makes them unique and that we all have our strengths and some weaknesses too.
4) Be a positive role model. Children learn from watching their parents. If they hear you put yourself down they will pick up on that and learn that’s what we do in life. I once had a client who put himself down a lot. I came to find out that’s what nearly every member of his family did to themselves, so every family member had to come up with at least three positive statements about themselves for each negative.
5) Praise and/or reward any effort you see and any perseverance or completion of a project rather than the outcome. This is especially important around homework time.
6) Cooperative rather than competitive games are helpful. Showing children how vital their participation is in a “team” will foster their self-esteem rather than playing a competitive game where a child may become the “loser” rather than the “winner.”
7) Identify any inaccurate or irrational beliefs and pull that weed right out before it takes root. We can give them a different perspective or a much more optimistic viewpoint when they may not see it. Here’s the deal: if a child has thoughts that are unhealthy or untruthful they will grow right into a negative feeling, such as sadness, anger or fear. However, any helpful or healthy thoughts will grow into a positive feeling, which in turn increases self-esteem.
8) Volunteering and contributing to the community will also foster self-esteem. Children will feel better about themselves when they know they are a part of helping someone or something else that interests them.
If you notice that your child’s mood or behavior is progressively worsening over time and he/she is struggling academically or socially, you may want to seek professional help. Child and Family therapists can identify barriers that are impairing kids’ self-esteem, help them increase coping skills, teach them to problem solve and give them the skills to change their thoughts so their feelings and behaviors will improve.