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Building Self-Esteem in Our Children

If we could have one wish come true for our little ones, it would be that they could see themselves the way we see them: perfect, exactly as they are. But life can be cruel and as they grow up they will encounter challenges that knock their confidence. So how do we help them recover when this happens, and build their self-esteem so that they grow into strong, resilient, confident people?

Understanding the building blocks

Self-esteem is defined in psychology as a person’s overall view of themselves - how they perceive, appreciate and like themselves regardless of external circumstances. Some of the most important factors that determine this include self-confidence, a feeling of competence in a variety of situations, a sense of belonging, resilience, and a strong feeling of security in their relationships. As the custodians of our children’s formative years, there are many things we can do to lay a strong foundation with these building blocks.

Building confidence: Don’t over-praise

“I don’t love praise,” says Dr Becky Kennedy, psychologist, positive parenting expert and host of the “Good Inside” podcast. “Praise orients kids to look outside instead of looking in, gets them hooked on external (rather than internal) validation, chips away at self-confidence, and can destroy intrinsic motivation.” Although she is adamant that of course praise happens naturally and organically when we focus on the positive behaviour of our children, she warns to be mindful that over-using praise can impact our children’s wiring for later life.

Building competence: Step back

Jim Taylor, author of “Your Kids Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You”, says that to build competence, parents need to let their children take risks, make choices, and solve their own problems. This can be difficult when we’re essentially hard-wired to steer them away from anything we perceive to be risky, but within reason we need to push ourselves to let them take risks. When they see that they’re capable of doing hard things without parental assistance, confidence builds exponentially.

Building a sense of belonging: Let them help around the house

In building their self-esteem, our children need to feel that their contribution is valued. Make them feel like their contribution to the family is essential by giving them tasks to take responsibility for around the home. That means asking them to help with cooking, laundry, unpacking the dishwasher, cleaning the car… There are many ways they can make a meaningful contribution to family life, and even if it means the task takes longer than if you were to simply do it yourself, it’s important that you let them take ownership of it and show your appreciation when it’s done.

Building resilience: Their happiness isn’t the goal

Dr Becky says, “Anybody who had a childhood in which happiness was the goal would be predestined for a lifetime of anxiety — life is full of distress! The more we focus on be happy, the less tolerance we have for distress and the more we search to feel any other way than how we’re feeling — which is the experience of anxiety.” When your child is unhappy about something - whether it’s something small like the tumbling over of a tower of blocks when they’re a toddler or something big like the disintegration of a friendship when they’re a teenager, the goal of the parent isn’t to “solve the problem”. It’s to sit beside them through the pain, be there for them and allow them to feel their feelings. “Through my presence,” says Dr Becky, "what I’m doing is teaching my kid that when their distress light goes on, it’s possible to operate it on a dimmer.”

Building security: Be demonstrative of your love

Our unconditional love builds the groundwork for all of our children’s future relationships. So be verbal and demonstrative in the way you love your little ones. Give hugs and kisses when you wake them up in the mornings or when you say goodbye for the day. Let it show on your face when you’re delighted to see them after school or a playdate. For no reason as all, whisper “I love you, you’re so special” in their ear, so that they feel that deep and strong connection with you. As they grow, this foundation of love will help them to know their worth and form their own bonds in the future.

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