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Build Your Child's Self-Esteem

By Janet Lehman, MSW

Something I’ve learned as a therapist and a mom is that you cannot “fix” your child’s self-esteem as a parent—though many of us make ourselves crazy trying to do just that. It’s hard to see our kids acting out and giving up because of insecurities, so we wrack our brains trying to find ways to motivate them and make them feel better. Unfortunately, self-esteem just doesn’t work that way. Here’s the truth: Kids can’t feel their way to better behavior, but they can behave their way to better feelings eventually.

"Kids can’t feel their way to better behavior, but they can behave their way to better feelings eventually."

What does this mean? In my experience, kids develop self-esteem by doing things that are difficult or challenging for them. To give you an example, when your child was young and learned to walk, you were probably proud of them and praised them for it. But now that they’re older, it’s no longer something you probably applaud them for. The point is, you want to compliment your child on things that are difficult for them to do. When your child solves a problem that’s challenging and relevant to them now, it builds self-esteem.

In our culture today, it can sometimes seem like kids get handed trophies and awards left and right for almost anything. But when kids are rewarded for things that aren't really difficult for them, it doesn't affect their sense of self-worth because those artificial rewards don't build genuine self-esteem. At best, your child will feel better for a few minutes. Of course, it's important to give our kids genuine encouragement as often as we can, as long as the praise is merited and isn't for something they've been doing with ease for years, like tying their shoes. Think about it this way: if your boss told you "nice work" for printing something out on your computer or pounding in a nail, would you value that praise? If you've been an office worker or a carpenter for more than a few days, probably not!

You have to look at self-esteem through the framework of problem solving. Feeling good about yourself is a problem you have to solve; you solve it by learning how to do things better, not by talking about it and feeling better artificially or fleetingly. Of course, there's nothing wrong with focusing on helping your child express his or her feelings. Just know that it's not going to help them with their problem-solving skill development, their mastery of difficult tasks, and won't give them the means to produce self-esteem. In other words, if you make your child feel good, he will feel good for the moment, but if you show him what to do to feel good about himself, he can use those skills for the rest of his life.

Challenge the Thinking that Creates the Self-Esteem Problem
If you want to challenge a child who's having behavioral issues and self-esteem problems, you have to confront the thinking they use to justify inappropriate behavior. So here's what that would look like: Let's say your child has an excuse for why she didn't do what the boss asked at her part-time job. As a parent, you want her to respect authority and follow through on her responsibilities. You also want to let her know that giving an excuse is not going to help; you want to challenge that kind of faulty belief.

If you let it slide or allow her to do a poor job, she won't learn anything about having a good work ethic or being responsible. On the other hand, a teen who completed her tasks at work has every reason to feel good about herself. She's on top of her responsibilities, and possibly gets rewarded for her efforts. The next day, she simply goes to work again. She may not understand how powerful her actions are, but in reality, she's learning successful habits that breed self-esteem. The more your child learns how to be independent and do things independently, the higher her self-esteem is going to be, and the better she's going to feel—she's "behaved her way to better feelings."

Promoting Positive Self-esteem: Setting Expectations
Kids need parents to be consistent and solid – to be their rock and follow-through with expectations. Kids feel safer when parents are clear and matter of fact. This objective lens can help you put your child's negative emotions into perspective. When emotions get in the way of following through on responsibilities or expectations, it's up to us as parents to focus on the behavior at hand. Then when your child does what he needs to do, you can be encouraging, reinforcing the positive behavior rather than the negative feelings and excuses that might have gotten in the way.

We all love positive reinforcement—we like to hear that we're doing a great job, and our kids do too. Parents often get pulled into the emotionality of what's going on with our children, especially when the child's self-esteem is shaky. But if you have a child who doesn't feel good about himself to begin with, focusing on positive behavior—and making sure he is held accountable when he misbehaves—is even more important.

For example, your teen comes home from her sporting event and has just been cut from the "A" team and relegated to the "B" team. She's so upset that she states she "Can't clean her room and do her laundry." You feel terrible for her, but know that having a messy room full of dirty clothes isn't going to help her feel any better about the situation. Instead you gently remind her of her expectations, offer a little help getting started, leave her to the task and then let her know what a great job she's done when the room is clean and the laundry is done. It's not going to help her get back on the team, but it's going to give her some positive accomplishment in an otherwise unhappy day.

Not focusing on feelings can be difficult for parents, and can initially seem overwhelming, awkward, and like we're being callous about our kids' emotions, as if we don't care. But think of it this way: if you were to just focus on your kid's feelings all the time and not their behavior, how would they learn to solve their problems in life? A change in behavior can clear the air and keep everyone from wallowing in negative feelings.

Understand that you can listen to your child and hear what they have to say, but then you need to remind them of the behaviors you expect. They may feel awful about what their friend said about them today, but they still have to do their chores and not be rude or mean to their siblings. In other words, feeling bad doesn't remove us from our responsibilities. After all, even if your car breaks down on the way to work, you have to deal with it, rearrange your work day, and get the car fixed and your work done. It feels bad, but you deal with it and move on.

Bad situations and real feelings
There are times when bad things happen to our kids and their negative emotions are very real. An example of this is when a child falls out with a good friend. As a parent of course you're going to feel your child's sadness, and the situation can be painful for everyone. But this is also a time when it's especially important to remember that it's your job to help your child find some way to problem solve, learn new strategies, and employ those strategies.

When we feel sorry for our kids, it's more difficult to follow-through with consequences, but don't let this become an excuse for them. Instead, think about the big picture—you want to keep your child's life as consistent as possible, and help them look outside their problems and keep moving in a positive direction. Over-empathizing and letting them off the hook whenever they're sad, angry or upset won't accomplish this; in fact, in can often have the opposite effect.

Here's a parenting truth: Sometimes our kids just need to feel bad, and we need to let them feel that way without trying to "fix it." Having a hard day doesn't stop the world or give your child the right to treat others badly. They still need to be held accountable for their behavior, but in the long run, this is going to help their self-esteem building. The end result is that your child will learn appropriate ways of acting when life is difficult.

Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.
Build Your Child's Self-Esteem is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine. The Total Transformation Program for parents offers practical, real world solutions for the most challenging problems parents face: defiance, disrespect, back talk, lying, cursing, lack of motivation, acting out in school and more. In this step-by-step program you'll learn the techniques James Lehman used in his private practice to help children take responsibility for their behavior and help parents get back in control of their homes.

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