Do you speak the language of self-esteem?

Choosing your words carefully gets the right message to your kids

Katherine Dedyna, Victoria Times Colonist; Canwest News Service

Friday, October 02, 2009

Happiness is high self-esteem

Lighthearted, no-pressure play is an important part of helping kids maintain their self-esteem.
CREDIT: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun, Canwest News Service, File

When Barbara Small was a chubby little girl, she hated the way other kids teased her. Her mother, trying to help, responded: "Well, if you lost weight, they wouldn't tease you."

"Her intention was positive...it was for me not to be teased or hurt," recalls the Victoria-based counsellor. "What I heard in my head was, 'It's OK for them to tease me and there's something wrong with me and I've got to fix it.' "

Despite the sky-high pile of parenting books, advice websites and changing child-rearing norms, Small is convinced that "a whole lot of kids" aren't getting the message of healthy self-esteem because their parents didn't learn it. "They're parenting the way they were, healthy or unhealthy."

Portland psychologist Marilyn J. Sorensen, founder of the Self-Esteem Institute™, agrees. The "total basis" for self-esteem comes from parents who let kids know they're loved, important, worthwhile and competent--which is hard to do without having experienced it. Self-esteem is formed in childhood, "based on what the child believes about himself," she says.

The fallout from low self-esteem includes everything from neediness to hyper-vigilance to self-sabotage, poor social relationships, lack of trust and depression. Parents who fall back on never-ending compliments or "you're the most fantastic child that ever lived" promote narcissism, rather than self-esteem, Sorensen says, which is also destructive to healthy self-image.

All too often low self-esteem is misdiagnosed and individuals continue to suffer from this issue. If a parent is unhealthy, the child has a much more difficult journey through an already challenging world.

A major reason behind low self-esteem in today's kids is the "emotional detachment" born of busyness, Sorensen says. Parents give kids the things they want without the emotional underpinnings they need.

Exhausted by work, commutes and rushing to activities, they often don't have time to talk to their kids.

"There's very little interaction so they're not getting direction, support and encouragement the way that they should," she says. Teaching responsibility for chores and good manners and other competencies that kids need also goes by the boards.

Parents are doing the best they can, Small says, but they need to think about what they say and how it can be misconstrued by kids. "If you're always putting yourself down, criticizing your partner, they really pay attention."

Small has encountered parents who didn't want to send negative vibes to their kids by arguing, so mom deferred to dad to keep things cool. The kids picked up that it's not OK to express anger and that females give in to males. The result:a quiet daughter and domineering son --not good for the selfesteem of either.

Obvious negative messages include constant fault-finding, comparison to other kids, high expectations beyond their ability or age or too few expectations that prompt feelings of inadequacy and reluctance to try new things.

When your child is nervous, scared or angry, find time to listen. Don't deny the legitimacy of the emotion or offer empty soothing. " You won't necessarily know what is going on in your child's head," Small says. "Acknowledge it, validate it and help them figure out how to cope with it."

Other tips to encourage self-esteem: - Let your child know you're proud of them as a person, citing the way they treat friends or follow the rules. - Be careful not to underplay a child's interests because they diverge from the family norm. Find a role model to help them explore it further. - Praise the effort your child makes, not necessarily the outcome. - Don't confuse drawing attention to the mistake with constructive criticism. - Be careful not to label a child. Even if they're funny, the clown needs to be taken seriously and the brainy kid still needs to hear "wow" at 98 per cent.

Small points out healthy self-esteem contributes to adult success. Kids who think well but realistically of themselves make sensible choices, and if they hit a problem, they don't panic but work through it. They're less likely to be bullied and more able to assert their needs; but also willing to take responsibility for their choices.

Ultimately, good selfesteem promotes peace of mind. Children with healthy self-esteem are getting the grounding to know that whatever happens in life, they'll figure out how to deal with it, Small says.

SYMPTOMS OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM

Destructive fallout from low selfesteem includes: - Faulty self-image as inadequate, unlovable and unworthy, often projected onto others; - Problems detecting whom to trust and when to trust them; - Distorted inner dialogue of negativity; - Obsessive-compulsive disorders and addictive behaviour; - Overreaction to situations; - Rigidity; - Depression; - Discouragement; - Anxiety about making a mistake, being rejected or looking foolish.

Healthy self-esteem encourages: - Looking ahead to set long-and short-range goals that are reasonable and attainable; - Avoidance of procrastination and perfectionism; - Acceptance of their own weaknesses or lack of skills, but determination to succeed; - bouncing back after setbacks; - Trusting their own mind and having the courage to say what they feel and believe; - benefiting from constructive criticism; - Making timely decisions; - Learning from past mistakes; - changing course when needed or cutting losses when failure looms;

Source: Self-Esteem Institute (www.theselfesteeminstitute.com™)

© The Edmonton Journal 2009