Dos and Don’ts Regarding Self-Esteem Development

parents kissing kidThe promotion of health self-esteem is an agenda on many parents’ short list. The research suggests that there are two components to self-esteem: a sense of worthiness and a sense of competence. Below I will review how to facilitate both as well as how to avoid promoting self-entitlement.

Promoting worthiness

This seems to come from experiencing quality attachments in which a child feels inherently loved and valued. Readers of this blog and my parenting book know I advocate a weekly exercise called special time (this link offers a free download on how to do this exercise). Special time involves providing one hour a week of one-on-one positive attention to each child. In my years of introducing parents to special time, I find two common reactions: an initial thought that “this won’t be hard to do,” followed up with the subsequent insight that it is very, very hard to do weekly and happens only when a parent makes it a top priority.

I think we naturally think of our relationships as things we’ll invest in child hand cuts out adult hand skyonce life’s obligations have been met. Relationships are for tomorrow, duty is for today. However, life’s obligations are rarely sated, so we end up treating our relationships like cacti instead of the orchids that they are. Special time not only combats this common trap but it also goes a long way towards promoting a child’s sense of worthiness.

Promoting competence

Another theme in my writings has been sharing how to identify and promote a child’s strengths in the world (e.g., enter the word “strengths” in the search bar above or see Chapter Two in my parenting book). One of the top jobs that we have as parents is to help our child to discover his or her top strengths. Once we then know the strengths, we do well to both promote them and to put them on display. The inherent sense of competence that a child can subsequently develop goes a long way to promoting both self-esteem and resilience.

paint on handsThis reflection is also germane when guiding high school students in vocational planning. Instead of the common: “what career would allow me to make the most amount of money, given how much I’m willing to sacrifice to my education, so that I can do what I really want to do on the weekends and vacations?,” we might ask: “in what career might I best use my top strengths to make the most meaningful impact in this world?” Clearly, practical questions are important. But, I worry about what happens when they are front loaded in the deliberation or, worse yet, they are the only consideration.

Avoiding the promotion of self-entitlement

The following are some common parental behaviors that can promote self-entitlement. Note that no parent that I’ve ever met has tried to turn  his or her child into a narcissist. Hence, these behaviors are usually done with good intentions. It’s just that they tend to have the exact opposite intended effect when they are practiced habitually.

• Praising or complementing a kid for poor or pedestrian performance. what's your planAttend most little league games and you’ll hear compliments rendered for grounding out or making a bad throw. In these instances, we may be compromising our credibility (e.g., when someone has told you that 2 + 2 = 5 do you go to that person for math help?) or promoting self-entitlement.

• Praising in the abstract. “You’re smart” or “you’re kind” or any other praise that is not anchored in appropriate context, if offered as a pattern, can foster a poor outcome.

• Overpraising our child. We do well to try to keep the dosing of our praise commensurate with our child’s performance. Throwing a parade, when a behavior isn’t parade worthy, if done routinely, promotes a sense of unrealistic specialness.

discussion with teen• Being afraid to let a child know that she or he is wrong or has made a mistake. Timing and wording are key, as is avoiding becoming overly negative and critical, of course. That said, blocking our kid from knowing that she or he has erred may compromise our work to ready our child to be effective in the world.

• Over subscribing responsibility for poor outcomes to others besides our child. When our kid hurts we hurt worse. For this reason it’s easier to think that someone else has treated or evaluated our child unfairly than it is to look within our child or our family for responsibility. If used as a general copying style, this pattern can inculcate within our child the intuition that others are at fault when she or he fails.

• Protecting our child from the consequences of his or her choices. See other articles on this blog site for some possible exceptions to this guideline (e.g., a given consequence would break our child). Generally speaking though, routinely protecting our child from such consequences promotes a sense of unhealthy specialness, as well as compromising our child’s opportunity to improve. If done habitually, it can leave our child expecting others to protect him or her from the consequences of his or her choices. It’s remarkable to me, as a college professor, how many young adults want me to excuse them from an outcome because he or she is a good person who tried hard or mehappy hispanic family3ant well.

As always, if your child is struggling with self-esteem, or you want tailored advice for your parenting, consider seeking out the services of a qualified child psychologist. For a referral, click here. Finally, I’m going to be participating in a live Google Hangout on this topic on 11/25/14 at 3:30 EST. If you’d like to log on, for free, click here:


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