Enhancing Your Child’s Self-Esteem

By Paul Holinger, MD

Self-esteem is one of the most discussed issues among parents and infant and child developmentalists. Psychologically, self-esteem can become quite complicated, but let’s stick to the basics and see if we can shed some light on it.

Self-esteem can be defined as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself. How can this be achieved? How does one’s own internal sense of self-esteem relate to external assessment of those around us?

In general, of course, the real key to self-esteem is loving and encouraging your child — life itself will provide enough problems — loving and valuing the child for himself or herself, who he or she is. This is often easier said than done, especially if the parents have not been loved and valued. Paying attention to your child, listening to her, being interested in her and how she feels and what she thinks — all these help solidify the child’s internal self-cohesion and give her the sense she is of value — i.e., self-esteem.

What else might one do to help enhance self-esteem?

First, it is crucial to understand feelings — how they work and are handled or mishandled. Feelings cause behaviors. We can understand behavior by understanding the feelings which are motivating the behaviors. Human beings have approximately nine built-in, universal feelings: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (reaction to noxious tastes) and dissmell (reaction to noxious odors). We’ll discuss these in more detail another time.

Second, use reward and praise systems rather than punishment whenever possible — focus on the positives rather than the flaws. In the midst of the complex period of adolescence, for example, parents do well to consider three or four praises for every one criticism.

Third, convey a sense of reality and encourage genuine competency. False praise is not useful for the child’s reality processing and self-esteem in dealing with the external world.

Finally, try not to use fear and shame as motivators. Fear and shame are quite toxic feelings and erode self-esteem.

The development of our internal psychological world is quite complex. Yet, helping a child achieve a solid sense of self, optimism and confidence is not all that difficult. Some attention to the issues raised above can be rather useful in enhancing potential and preventing problems.

Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH, is a professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center.

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