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Is it something you can foster in your children or is self-esteem elusive and capricious, granted to some while others flounder in a haze of insecurity and self-doubt? Here’s the good news, you can shape your child’s sense of self so they mature into an adult whose self-esteem is hardy and healthy.
How is it done, you wonder. When caring for your infant, you know exactly how to meet their physical needs – a warm bottle or breast, clean diapers, and lots of napping. As your child grows, they continue to need the basics like food, clothing, shelter and more. But in addition to physical needs, children are also born with emotional needs and when those emotional needs are met, their self-esteem flourishes. What are these emotional needs and what does meeting these needs look like?
The self-esteem blueprint
Emotionally, your child needs three essential supports from you.
· They need you to admire them (isn’t that why children are so cute?).
· They need you to teach them how to regulate their emotions and behaviors.
· They need you to give them a feeling of belonging.
When you do these three things consistently and repeatedly, your child will grow up to have strong self-esteem and will find purpose and meaning in life.
You might be asking “what exactly is self-esteem anyway?”. Here’s the answer. Self-esteem is a realistic respect for, or favorable impression of yourself.
People with self-esteem face life’s ups and downs with resilience. When faced with a dilemma or difficult matter, they are confident that they can cope with it. This confidence comes from experiencing a symbiotic and supportive relationship with you, their parent. Self-esteem includes knowing that if you do become overwhelmed then there will be someone to whom you can turn to for help.
A child’s experience of an affirming relationship with their parent establishes a deeply rooted belief in their own value and competency. This belief finds expression through their inner voice, which, like soft background music, is often imperceptible. This inner voice loops favorable messages in your child’s mind, using a pleasant tone of voice. It is compassionate and respectful while tolerant of imperfection.
Where does this inner voice come from? It comes from the way you speak to your child.
Let’s take a close look at the essential supports your child needs to foster self- esteem.
Six-year-old Zev Fisher was busy with his playmobile while his younger brother Ari, sat nearby watching. Zev looked at the picture displayed on the box, then turned to Ari and said, “Look, Ari! Once I put these last two pieces together the policeman will be able to ride his motorcycle. You wanna be the bad guy and I’ll chase you on my motorcycle?
“Here,” he said, handing Ari a car, “The bad guy can drive this to get away from me.” Ari was thrilled that his older brother included him in his game. Mrs. Fisher was in the room and watched this exchange.
“Zev, you made Ari feel so good by including him in your game. What a nice thing for a big brother to do. Looks like you’re having so much fun. I just love it when you guys have fun together.” said their mother.
When Mrs. Fisher commented to Zev about her observations, it was as if she held a mirror in her hand and passed it to Zev saying, “Look, this is you.” Zev saw himself the way his mother saw him, and he felt admired. He also felt loved and connected to her.
Admiration is a building block of self-esteem.
If Mrs. Fisher mirrors Zev regularly and often, she reinforces his feelings of being admired, connected to and enjoyed by his mom, thereby building his sense of self. Through expressing her observations and modeling supportive dialogue, Zev’s mother is also molding his inner voice to be one that is approving and accepting. Being approving and accepting of himself will be as much a part of his identity as his own name is.
We need to regulate our emotions so that when we interact with others we can do so with flexibility and self-control.
A typical day includes stressful events (both positive and negative) that produce strong feelings such as frustration, confusion, surprise or enthusiasm. When this happens to children, they depend on their parents to soothe and comfort them so that they can recover and continue their activities. The classic example would be the new walking toddler who runs, loses their balance, and scrapes their knee while falling. Their nearby parent scoops them up, rocks them and murmurs soothing words in their ear. Mom
inspects their knee, then plants a kiss on the boo boo. Next, Mom redirects her child by giving them a toy to play with. All is right in the world again. When this two-step interaction (soothing and redirecting) gets repeated throughout all their developmental
stages, children learn how to regulate their emotions by self-soothing and then rechanneling their energy.
Tehila Cooper loved swimming. She felt awkward and excluded when she realized that all her friends were swimming at the deep end of the pool. She had to remain in the shallow with the younger kids because she hadn’t passed the deep-water test yet. One afternoon, Tehila told her mother that she wasn’t going to the pool that day. Mrs. Cooper realized something was bothering Tehila and approached her to talk about it.
“Tehila, you love the pool, don’t you? You’re like a fish,” she said.
“I’m not a fish. I can’t even swim yet,” Tehila said in a moping and derisive voice.
“Oh, Tehila,” began her mother, “Having your arm in a cast last summer really set you back, didn’t it? You would have been a deep-water swimmer by now if you hadn’t missed all those lessons. You’re great in the water but you have a lot of catching up to do. You’ll probably advance really quickly this year and you’ll be a deep-water swimmer before you know it. You’ll be in the pool with all your friends real soon …Your next lesson is tomorrow, so in the meantime, why don’t you ride your bike over to Aunt Shira’s house and pick up the goggles you left there?”
Mrs. Cooper sensed that Tehila was in a bad mood and initiated a conversation to find out what was bothering her. When Mrs. Cooper put things in perspective it soothed Tehila and helped her regulate her emotions about feeling left out. Once she sensed that Tehila felt understood and comforted, Mrs. Cooper redirected Tehila’s behavior.
When this type of parent-child interaction is repeated often and consistently, Tehila will grow up knowing how to soothe, comfort and redirect herself. She will learn to speak to herself compassionately, without criticism or judgment. The positive outcome of the conversation she and her mother had also implanted the idea that it’s safe and helpful to turn to others when facing difficult feelings. Later in life, when she is feeling unusually distressed and is unable to soothe herself, she’ll know she can reliably turn to someone else for help.
Imagine being a volunteer who works at an animal shelter. The feelings you share about animals create a kinship between you and the other volunteers. It’s a type of twinship, a sameness – I am like you and you are like me.
On the other hand, when you feel different to those around you, you might feel alienated or misunderstood. Similarly, children need to feel a sameness with their parent. They need to feel that they and you are the same. This creates a sense of belonging. (Later, they will learn to differentiate from you but first they need to feel secure in their sameness with you.)
If your child needs to feel the same as you, then what would make them feel different?
Harsh and unyielding criticism.
Moshe Boxer is in third grade but continues to have a hard time sitting still. Some part of his body is in motion no matter what activity he is involved in. When he sits at the dinner table, he sits at the corner of his seat and tilts the chair on its legs. Eventually, he or the chair tumble to the floor. Sometimes, both.
“What is the matter with you, Moshe? Why can’t you just sit still? I keep telling you to stop that,” his mother snaps at him.
Moshe often taps his fingers, hums, or walks around swinging his arms widely, unaware of where his body is in space. Often, he knocks over his glass of water, or worse, his sister’s. In response, he hears his mother repeat her caustic question several times a week, “What’s the matter with you. Moshe?”
In addition to her critical remarks, Mrs. Boxer also reflects a skewed image to Moshe like the distorted images we see when looking into a circus mirror. This mocking is the antithesis of being admired.
Another point of importance is Mrs. Boxer’s’s inability to regulate her own emotions about Moshe’s behavior. She is frustrated, impatient and cruel in her assessment of him. Moshe observes his mother model emotional dysregulation, certainly not a method through which he could learn to regulate his own emotions.
The oft repeated derision will lead Moshe to conclude that there is something wrong with him. He will feel different to his mother (and family). Mrs. Boxer’s abrasive words about his behavior alienates him. She might have joined Moshe by demonstrating their sameness i.e. “We all struggle with something. Hey, no matter how carefully I follow directions, I often get lost.” Instead, she damages their relationship through her criticism and makes him feel different.
It would be safe to predict that Moshe will look elsewhere for admiration. He will struggle with regulating his emotions and might turn to substances to numb his feelings. He will try to find a sense of belonging with others, perhaps undesirable others.
Unfortunately, Moshe will develop a harsh inner critic that will blame him whenever something in his life goes wrong. This inner critic will be relentless and corrosive.
Had Mrs. Boxer supported Moshe, the dialogue might have gone this way.
“Moshe, it’s hard for you sit neat on your seat, huh?” she asks with a twinkle in her eye and a lilt in her voice, as they’re driving to the store.
“Can you tell me what if feels like for you when you need to sit at the table?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” says Moshe.
“Hmmm. Do you think standing would help? Or maybe I could get you one of those cushions for your chair like you have in school. Let’s try to come up with a good idea because I know it’s hard for you and I want to make it easier. Let’s figure this out together. By the way, I noticed that you wiped up the spill without me having to ask. That was helpful.”
By interacting with him, Mrs. Boxer shows Moshe that his behavior and his identity are not the same. The mirror she shows him reflects a child who is cooperative and helpful. It does not highlight his deficits. Doing this will also give Moshe the idea that he has agency over himself and he can find solutions.
A Second Chance
Using this blueprint will help you develop your child’s self-esteem. But what about Mrs. Boxer? She needs some help and support too, don’t you think?
How about yourself? If you haven’t received the right kind of messages from your own parents, you might be suffering from a harsh inner critic too.
Here’s some more good news. It’s not your fault and it can be reversed. Your brain can be rewired and the harsh and critical messages you hear can be overridden. You don’t need an electrician to do the rewire, but you might very well need a therapist.
Changing might seem impossibly hard. That’s okay. You know what they say about Rome, right? You don’t have to change in one day, or one month or even in one year. Change is a process and transformation occurs over time. It might feel overwhelming at
first and that’s perfectly normal.
There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not alone and you don’t have to do it alone. I see you and I see the potential in you. Here, look, want to see for yourself?
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This article first appeared on GoldsteinTherapy.com