Helping Kids Develop Positive Self-Worth
First introduced by psychologist William James over a century ago, the term self-esteem has become synonymous with participation ribbons, unwarranted praise and unneeded ego-stroking on the part of parents, coaches and teachers. Self-esteem, however, or a person’s concept of personal self-worth, is far from pop psychology fluff. Per today’s top researchers in the field of neurology and child development, self-esteem is foundational to healthy childhood development. Research published by the US Department of Health and Human Services links healthy self-esteem to better overall physical and emotional health, improved problem-solving, better relationships and lower levels of stress. Building healthy self-esteem begins early, but caregivers can help self-worth flourish at any age. Here’s how.
Long before children begin school, they develop concepts about their self-worth that may influence academic performance later on. A child’s self-esteem is highly developed by age 5, say researchers at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. Children with higher self-esteem are more willing to persist and are more motivated to complete tasks than those with lower self-worth.
Allowing young children to make choices as soon as they’re able, usually once they become verbal around age 2, can help develop their budding sense of self and foster positive self-esteem, says licensed professional counselor Caroline Racher Turak, play therapist at The Stone Center for Counseling in Charlotte.
“I use choice giving with children as young as 2-1/2, as long as they are verbal.” Allowing a child to choose, say, whether he’ll wear shoes or boots to the playground, allows him to view himself as an individual capable of making good choices and learning from those decisions, both today and years down the road.
In years past, well-intentioned parents heaped praise on kids in an attempt to build self-esteem. But this approach can backfire, causing children to fixate on external validation and measures of success outside of their own control. Far from a fountain of positive self-worth, excessive praise may result in anxious, unmotivated kids with lower self-esteem, according to research reported by the American Psychological Association. The praise habit is so ingrained in modern parenting that it can be hard to kick, says child psychiatrist Vinay Saranga, medical doctor and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in Apex.
“Parents can and should express admiration and pride in their child’s achievements,” he says. But it’s best to be specific, as in, ‘I love the colors you picked for your painting,’ instead of a vague ‘Great job!’”
“Focus on encouragement rather than praise,” Turak says. “Encouragement recognizes the work a child did to earn the accomplishment, as in, ‘you really worked hard to earn that A’ and focuses on building internal validation, while praise emphasizes external validation.”
Body Image Blues
As exposure to negative media messaging and pressure from peers piles on, teens’ view of their bodies can become distorted. With older children and teens, parents should model behaviors that show a strong sense of self-worth and a positive body image, says Turak.
“Parents of teens should be mindful about how they talk about their own bodies in front of their teen. If a parent is looking in the mirror and talking about how they need to lose 10 pounds, it can be detrimental to how the teen views themselves,” Turak says. “But I like to remind parents that it is not what you have done that matters most, but what you do after what you have done. Basically, how you repair.”
If you catch yourself bashing your body in front of your teen, find a moment later to say “I realize I haven’t been talking nicely about myself and others, and I’m going to do better.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and parenting journalist and mom.