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Building Self-Esteem in Children

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There are a lot of problems that can get in the way of kids growing up to be mentally and physically healthy adults. Poor achievement in school, smoking, underage drinking, drug use, reckless driving, teen pregnancy, violent behavior … more often than not, these same problems are directly linked to how our children feel about themselves as individuals.

Identifying the Problem

Experts say over and over the same thing: Kids who get into trouble often exhibit one or more of the same personality traits -

  1. Lack of self-confidence
  2. Lack of self-discipline
  3. Inability to avoid peer pressure
  4. Need for acceptance
  5. No sense of what the future holds
  6. No sense of self-value to others

In short, they lack self-esteem.

It's not just the "problem" kids who have self-esteem issues, either. You and I both know how many adults (sometimes even ourselves) suffer from low self-esteem. We also know that having a good perspective of ourselves means the difference between moving ahead, beyond problems, and falling behind, dwelling in our failures.

Building self-esteem is a lifelong process. Every new experience we have with other people, every success or failure we have in our personal lives, all the things that we do shape how we think of ourselves. It's hard to think of ourselves as unique people with qualities and talents that make us special if our self-esteem is in the gutter.

For kids coming to terms with the very broad sketch of who they are, self-esteem can be a leading indicator of success in school and beyond.

So What Is Self-Esteem, and What Can I Do?

Most simply, self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. It means being able to say, "I'm likeable", "I can make a difference", and "I deserve love". Think back to your teen years. How often were you able to say these things? I know that in high school, I was one of the least likely to be thought of as having low self-esteem. I wasn't overly popular, but I had a tight-knit group of friends who I shared everything with. I excelled in art, writing, and languages, and actively participated in the community.

And I hated myself.

As a teenager, I couldn't see that anything I did had any use to the world, much less me. I didn't feel capable, significant, powerful, or worthy. I was appreciated and shown affection, but the way that I felt about me was much less … appreciative.

Author Stanley Coopersmith created a system for measuring people's self-esteem. Part of the basis behind this system is that kids and adults need to feel the following adjectives apply to them:

  • Capable - They possess useful skills and abilities
  • Significant - What they say, think, and do actually matters
  • Powerful - They can influence the world around them
  • Worthy - They believe they are unique, and have special talents.

Adult or child, people gain self-esteem in a variety of ways, including appreciation and behavior reinforcement. When we fail at something, we need to learn how to focus on our successes.

As parents, we can do a lot to help our children build self-esteem. Show appreciation for the things that your children do - even if it doesn't personally interest you. Show affection for your child, and when correcting their mistakes, don't make it personal. Instead of saying, "You made me angry," try to say, "What you did made me angry".

Just being around to talk and play boosts a child's self-image. By simply being there, you show your children that they are worth your time. Recently, my daughter said something to me that made me jump in surprise. We were driving down the road, and she was happily singing away in the back seat when she suddenly stopped and said, "Mom, Grandma is always happy to see me. She loves me, huh?"

Of course, I immediately assured her that Grandma loves her very much - but I was thinking about how much that single statement actually meant. It said that my daughter recognized sincerity, that she felt worthwhile and of value to someone else. That because her grandma loves her, she has meaning. According to many experts, children who don't have this connection with other people may begin to feel that they don't matter.

Developing special abilities and learning unique talents also helps boost a child's self-esteem. Kids, even more than adults, define themselves by what they can do - and what they can do well. Helping our children develop talents and skills gives them hope, a dream that they can pin their future on. What we do shapes who we are, and finding interests that a child can grow with lets them define who they are for themselves, before their peers can define "self" for them.

Key to talking about a kid's self-esteem is that nobody is perfect. Everyone, child or adult, has limitations. Just because I excelled in creative pursuits when I was in school, and shaped my life around those interests, doesn't mean that my daughter will be able to draw beautifully - she may not even like to read or write stories. Forcing children to follow activities that they aren't interested in, or trying to make them excel at something they're really not good at, can lead to huge self-esteem problems. The problem is that you've placed a focus on what your child can't do, instead of what they can.

The most important thing we can do as parents? Provide direction, an outlet for your children's interests … and then let them define where that direction takes them. We have to discover ourselves, hopefully long before adulthood when employers and partners expect you to have gotten through all your little insecurities and perform the way an adult is expected to. Watch where your children's interests lie - do they enjoy dancing or painting? - and then encourage them to grow in their interests. Applaud their efforts, and help them learn how to do what they do even better.

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