How can I protect my child from life’s hurts?
Will my child be bullied?
Will my child stand up to peer pressure?
How can I prepare my child for the challenges in the world?
If you’re like me, these are the nagging questions that seem to always be present. Some days these questions are quiet and just sit idle in the back of our minds. Like white noise that we are able to drown out with hugs and snuggles. Other days these worries are front and center in our minds screaming at us for answers, solutions, and comfort.
As a parent I have realized that I CANNOT protect my children from everything, but I CAN equip my children with the tools to protect themselves. Over the past 10-years as a licensed mental health therapist working with children, adults, and families I have learned that the best thing we can do for our kids is to build in them a healthy self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem is the greatest protection against life’s uncertainties. Fredrick Douglas once said; “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” A child that is taught how to nurture their self-esteem is then equipped with the most powerful tools to overcome all of life’s challenges.
What is Healthy Self-Esteem?
Before we can build healthy self-esteem in our children we have to understand the true definition of healthy self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem is when a person knows that they are worthy simply because they exist. You are worthy of love, respect, appreciation, and joy. Your worth as a human being is not defined by others or by externals such as money, status, etc.
Healthy self-esteem is knowing that you are enough. It is also knowing that everyone else is enough. No person is more OR less worthy than another. We are all equally worthy.
Having a foundation of healthy self-esteem is knowing that even though you may not be the best at something, it does not make you less worthy. It does not make you less of a person. Just as being the best at something does not make you better than others and does not make you more worthy.
We all have gifts, talents, and strengths we are born with. It is acknowledging and accepting your strengths AND your weaknesses and being at peace with who you are and knowing that your worth as a human being is not dependent on any outside factors.
Right about now you might be thinking; “Wait, so this chick is telling me that my worth as a person is not based on being nice, smart, giving, pretty, etc. That I don’t have to make good choices, wear trendy clothes, or get the big promotion at work in order to increase my self-esteem.”
YES!!!! That is exactly what I am saying.
Healthy self-esteem is unconditional. Your worth is not conditional on what you do, how you treat others, or what you look like. Traits, actions, attributes are conditional. These things are constantly growing and changing over time. Externals are conditional. Self-worth on the other hand, is unconditional.
Still having trouble seeing yourself this way?
Think of it as the love that you have for your child. A parent’s love for their child is unconditional. Even when your children are screaming and having a tantrum you still love them. You probably don’t love their behavior at the moment and you may even not like them at that moment, but you still love your children even during their tantrum. The hitting and screaming of a tantrum is a condition that can and will likely change. Your love doesn’t.
As parents we love our children no matter what they look like, no matter how athletic they are, and no matter if they get on the school honor roll. These conditions don’t decrease our love for our children.
Why can’t the same be true for how we love ourselves?
That’s what healthy self-esteem is. It is loving ourselves unconditionally.
And ensuring that our kids grow up to be adults capable of loving themselves unconditionally.
Sound like a lot of pressure? As if parenting isn’t difficult enough already. Now, we are responsible for the self-worth of our children. It can all feel very overwhelming!!
But we have two things in our favor –
(a) as parents we already know what unconditional love is and
(b) children are born with a healthy self-esteem.
Think about it…
Have you ever seen a toddler run stark naked through the house while squealing with pure joy and not a worry in the world. This is the personification of healthy self-esteem.
The toddler is not worried about their baby fat rolls moving as they run. They have no insecurities about their body or how they look as they run. There is no thought or worry about people’s perception or judgment of them. There is only love, safety, self-acceptance, and joy.
My 3-year old son reminded me of this just the other day.
He watched as I stepped on our bathroom scale to check my weight. I looked down at the scale and immediately had a reaction to the number I saw flash on the screen. In a matter of seconds a million thoughts ran through my head such as “I knew I should have had a salad for lunch yesterday.”
As my thoughts and negative self-talk continued in my head, I watched my son hop onto the scale to weigh himself. He looked down at the number and proudly announced “28 pounds” as he looked up at me with a smile beaming across his face. Then, he stepped off the scale, ran off to play, and did not give a second thought to his weight. He did not judge or criticize himself for a second. My son taught me a valuable lesson in that moment and reminded me to practice nurturing my own self-esteem.
Since our children are already born with untarnished self-esteem, our job becomes a little bit simpler — to make sure that we are teaching them how to nurture their self-esteem.
Alvin Price, the author of How to Boost Your Child’s Self-Esteem: 101 Ways to Raise a Happy, Confident Child, says;
Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry.
Instead of focusing our energy and efforts on preventing the world from poking any holes in our children’s bucket, let’s shift our efforts towards teaching our children how to patch up those holes, so they can rebound and rebuild from the hurts that they are inevitably going to encounter and refill their buckets together.
How to Teach Your Child to Have Healthy Self-Esteem
How do we fill our children’s buckets? Here are some tips and resources that I find helpful –
# 1: Start by modeling self-love and self-forgiveness
For example, when you make a mistake take ownership of it and then allow for self forgiveness. Demonstrate this with your children. If you yelled when you became angry then you can say to your child. “Oops, I made a mistake and yelled when I was angry because I dropped the milk. Next time, I am angry instead of yelling I can try to blow up my angry balloon. I forgive myself for my mistake and will try better next time.”
#2: Teach your child that others are equally worthy
When we teach children empathy it allows them to understand and connect with someone else. When a child is able to put themselves in the other person’s shoes this increases their ability to have compassion for themselves and others. Teach children that everyone has flaws and everyone deserves unconditional love. We don’t need to compare ourselves to others in order to increase or decrease our self worth. We are all perfectly imperfect. We are all equally worthy.
#3: Teach your child to live in the gray area
Self-esteem is often mistaken for perfection or being based on strengths. This definition of self-esteem traps children in a state of anxiety due to all-or-nothing or black-or-white thinking. For example, if I don’t get straight A’s on my report card then I am stupid. If I win a trophy, I’m a super star.
If we change our definitions and language then we can live life in the gray area. Kick the habit of the all-or-nothing/black-or-white thinking. There is so much fun to be had when we live life in the gray area.
Here’s a quick trick to do this: use even though-nevertheless statements.
For example, in high school, I was required to take 4-years of a foreign language. I choose Spanish. I would study for hours and hours. I saw a Spanish tutor 2-times a week. Yet, no matter what I did my grade in Spanish never ever rose above a grade of a D.
I remember sitting in the red beanbag chair in my room for hours practicing Spanish flashcards. There were many nights when I would break down in tears over not being able to understand what the people on the Spanish channel were saying in order for me to complete my Spanish current events assignment.
My parents could have responded by making me feel stupid or by saying I wasn’t working hard enough. Or that I wasn’t living up to my potential.
Instead, the one time that I did get a grade of a C in Spanish for the semester they took me out for dinner to celebrate. They celebrated my hard work and determination not the end result of an A-grade.
They taught me that even though I wasn’t the best in Spanish nevertheless I was still worthy.
#4: Teach your child how to effectively apologize and forgive
A theme I see so often in my therapy sessions with clients of all ages is that they have a hard time apologizing effectively.
The person either tries to explain their position during the apology or they don’t validate the other person’s feelings and instead say “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Teaching a child how to effectively apologize also teaches them empathy, how to validate someone’s feelings, and how to take ownership for their actions. Seems like a lot packed into one apology, doesn’t it? Yup, which is exactly why teaching our children how to apologize is so important.
My son is young so we utilize feelings charts when we can in order to help with the apology. An apology has 5 parts:
- Part 1: Express sincere remorse
- Part 2: Take ownership of your action
- Part 3: Validate the other person’s feelings
- Part 4: Make amends (offer a solution for the future)
- Part 5: Ask for forgiveness
For example, my son’s teacher informed me at pick-up that my son hit another child at school. I discussed this with my son and asked him if he would like to write his classmate an apology letter. My son said yes and we used a copy of his feelings chart as our letter. My prompts to walk him through the apology process typically go as follows:
Parent: What would you like to say to your friend? How do you feel?
Child: I’m sorry. I feel sorry. (My son circled the picture representing sorry)
Parent: What did you do that you are sorry for?
Child: I hit my friend.
Parent: How did you hitting make your friend feel?
Child: It made him feel sad and lonely. (My son circled the pictures for sad and lonely)
Parent: What can you do next time instead of hitting?
Child: I can ask him to share the toy with me.
Parent: That sounds like a great idea.
#5: Use children’s books
Books are a wonderful way to interact with our children while encouraging them through the lessons within the book. Reading books about celebrating diversity, fostering empathy, and nurturing healthy self-esteem are wonderful ways to share quality time while filling their bucket. Check out the many children’s books from your local library, used bookstore, or online.
#6: Games, art and play
Play is the way that children learn and express themselves. Play is how children work through their emotions as well. Use play to connect with your child. That connection and quality time increases their self-esteem. The safety of your presence fills their bucket. No matter what the game or activity is the act of being present with your child nurtures their self-esteem. If you want activities and games geared specifically to building self-esteem then use those too. But don’t pressure yourself. Any quality time does the trick.
#7: Music and dancing
Music and dancing is a big part of my family. This began during the courtship with my husband. The moment I knew I was falling in love with him was when we were stuck in Washington D.C. traffic and instead of being grumpy he turned up the music, blasted the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and danced in the car to pass the time. Then, on our wedding day, we began our reception by bringing all of the guests onto the dance floor and dancing to party music.
Now, we have living room dance parties with our children after dinner. My son loves to dance and sing. He knows the words to lot of the songs. When I hear him sing the words; “Honestly, I want to see you be brave” it makes my heart skip a beat with happiness. Choose songs that empower, inspire, and uplift.
Dancing also helps promote each of us being comfortable with our bodies. Honoring our bodies through the use of movement and accepting how they move builds our appreciation for our bodies no matter their shape or size.
#8: Watch what you say and how you say it
The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.
This quote is posted on the refrigerator in our home. Words are often reactionary. Being mindful of what we say and how we say it is a crucial skill. A skill that I continually have to work on which is why I want the constant reminder every time I pour my children a glass of milk or every time I am cooking dinner. Having that phrase visible in high traffic area helps keep it at the forefront of my mind. Choose a phrase, quote, or printable that speaks to you and place it in a high traffic area as your constant reminder. 101 Ways to Praise a child is a great printable.
#9: Praise done correctly
One fear I hear a lot from parents is that they’re worried that if they praise everything their child does then they will end up raising a child who is overconfident, arrogant, or feels entitled. This is a legitimate concern if praise is not used properly.
The other day, my son and I were practicing his reading. He sounded out the word “bed.” After several times of saying each letter sound quickly he finally got it and said the word “bed”. A three letter word that may come easily to others took him several attempts. I smiled, said “way to not give up, buddy”, and gave him a high five. He responded by saying; “Thanks mommy, I knew I could do it.”
Now, does his response mean I am raising an arrogant and narcissistic child? No, it means I am raising a child who knows that if he tries hard, practices, and doesn’t give up then he can do anything.
That is a lesson I want my child to learn.
The trick to praising children right without falling down the over praising rabbit hole is –
- Step 1: Focus on the effort or process and NOT the outcome
- Step 2: As children become older praise only the actions that are above and beyond. Do not praise an action that is expected. If your child is expected to clean up his room then do not praise them for picking up their clothes. If they clean up their room AND clean up the living room then praise the child for the added help.
- Step 3: Praise immediately.
- Step 4: Focus on selfless acts and actions of giving.
#10: The words and images around us are powerful
Choose home decor and play room artwork that inspires and supports your family’s values.
As a teenager I had a poster in my room. I cannot remember if I put it there or if my parents did, but to this day I can close my eyes and see the image and words on that poster. The poster was the poem Declaration of Self-Esteem by Virginia Satir. The poster read; “I AM ME. I AM OKAY.”
What a powerful and influential message to wake up to every morning and fall asleep to every night as a teenager. Thanks Mom and Dad!
#11: Build your self-esteem
Adults can learn to rebuild their own self-esteem too. They can fix the holes life has caused in their buckets. They can white-out the darkness that has tarnished the pure self worth they were born with. If you want to learn how to rebuild and nurture your self-esteem then don’t stop with your kids. Keep going and give that same gift to yourself.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Change occurs in 3 steps:
- Awareness: Increase your level of awareness
- Action: Implement an action or intervention
- Internalize: Practice making the new behavior your new truth/involuntary reaction
Increase your level of awareness of how often you praise and encourage your child. Divide your day into 3 parts (morning, afternoon, evening) and commit to taking 2-minutes during each part of the day to provide effort-based praise and encouragement statements to your child at each part of the day.
- How does your child react to your statements of encouragement?
- Did you find it difficult to praise the effort instead of the outcome?
- If your child was unsuccessful at the activity how did they respond when you praised the effort instead of the result?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Pick 1 method from the tips above and focus on practicing that for at least 3 weeks. Once that behavior becomes part of your routine then pick another method and practice that one. Keep practicing one at a time and then eventually you will have an arsenal of self-esteem boosting tools that are simply part of who you are and your parenting routine. Then before you know it your children will be able to refill their bucket on their own and the holes the world pokes will feel like pin pricks instead of gaping drains.
- Which of the tips above do you already have in your esteem boosting tool kit?
- Which of the tips do you enjoy using the most?
- Which of the tips is the most challenging for you?
- What does it feel like for you to practice these skills with your child?
- Which of the tips does your child respond the best to and have the most fun with?
- How do you respond when you are unsuccessful at something?
- How can these tips help benefit you? Which tips would you like to utilize on yourself as well?
- What changes are you seeing in your child as a result of practicing nurturing their self-esteem. What changes are you seeing in yourself as a parent? In your family as a whole?
- Breaking the Hollow Praise Habit: 25 Alternatives to “Good Job”
- Self-Esteem isn’t Selfish
- Developing Kids’ Self Esteem: 4 Surefire Ways
- A Delicate Balance: Raising Confident Kids Who Aren’t A-Holes
- 10 Things That Can Hurt Your Child’s Self-Esteem
- How Low Self Esteem Can Be Passed Down from Mother to Daughter