Monday, January 31, 2011

Simple Ways to Boost Self Esteem in Children

Nurturing a child's self-esteem seems like a hefty responsibility.  And it is.  "Self-esteem comes from having a sense of belonging, believing that we're capable, and knowing our contributions are valued and worthwhile," says California family therapist Jane Nelsen, co-author of the Positive Discipline series.

"As any parent knows, self-esteem is a fleeting experience," says Nelsen. "Sometimes we feel good about ourselves and sometimes we don't. What we're really trying to teach our kids are life skills like resiliency." The goal of a parent is usually to ensure that your child develops pride and self-respect — in himself and in his cultural roots — as well as faith in his ability to handle life's challenges. Here are some simple strategies to help boost your child's self-esteem:

Give unconditional love. A child's self-esteem flourishes with the kind of no-strings-attached devotion that says, "I love you - no matter what.  No matter who you are or what you do, I still love you." Your child benefits the most when you accept him for who he is regardless of his strengths, difficulties, temperament, or abilities. So go ahead - lavish him with love! Lots of cuddles, kisses, and pats on the shoulder. And don't forget to tell him how much you love him. When you do have to correct your child, make it clear that it's his behavior — not him — that's unacceptable. For instance, instead of saying, "You're so naughty! Why can't you be a good boy?" say, "Shoving Ian isn't nice. It hurts. Please don't shove."

Pay attention. Find time to give each child some undivided attention. It does wonders for your child's self-worth because it sends the message that you feel he's important and valuable. It doesn't take a lot of time; just take a moment to stop flicking through the mail if he's trying to talk with you,  or put down the cell phone long enough to answer a question. Eye contact - at his level -makes it clear that you're truly listening to what he says. When you're strapped for time, let your child know it without ignoring his needs. Say, "Tell me all about the picture you drew, and then when you're finished, I'll need to make our dinner."

Teach limits. Establish a few reasonable, age appropriate rules for your child. For instance, if you tell your child he has to eat his snack in the kitchen, don't let him wander around the family room with his crackers and fruit the next day. Knowing that certain family rules are set in stone will help him feel more secure. It may take constant repetition on your part, but he'll start to live by your expectations soon enough. Just be clear and consistent and show him that you trust him to do the right thing.

Support healthy risks. Encourage your child to explore something new! Simple things, like trying a different food, finding a new best pal, or attempting new roller blades. There's always the possibility of failure, but without risk there's little opportunity for success. So let your child safely experiment, and resist the urge to intervene. Try not to "rescue" him if he's showing  frustration at figuring out a new toy. Even jumping in to say, "I'll do it" can foster dependence and diminish your child's confidence. You'll build his self-esteem by balancing your need to protect him with his need to tackle new tasks - on his own.  Which leads us to our next topic...

Let mistakes happen.  Having choices and taking risks means that sometimes your child is bound to make mistakes. What valuable lessons for your child's confidence! So if your child puts his plate too close to the edge of the table and it tips, encourage him to think about what he might do differently next time. And those rare moments when you goof up yourself, own it!Acknowledging and recovering from your mistakes sends a powerful message to your child — it makes it easier for your child to accept his own shortcomings.

Celebrate the positive. We all respond well to encouragement, so make an effort to acknowledge the good things your child does every day within his earshot. For instance, tell his dad, "Jason washed all the vegetables for dinner." He'll get to bask in the glow of your praise and his dad's heartening response. And be specific. Instead of saying "Good job," say, "Thank you for waiting so patiently in line." This will enhance his sense of accomplishment and self-worth - by letting him know exactly what he did right.

Listen well. If your child needs to talk, stop and listen to what he has to say. This one is so big.  He needs to know that his thoughts, feelings, desires, and opinions matter. Help him get comfortable with his feelings by labeling them. Say, "I understand you're sad because you have to say bye to your soccer friends." By accepting his emotions without judgment, you validate his feelings and show that you value what he has to say. If you share your own feelings ("I'm excited about going to the zoo"), he'll gain confidence expressing his own.

Resist comparisons. Comments such as "Why can't you be more like your sister?" or "Why can't you be nice like Peter?" will just remind your child of where he struggles in a way that fosters shame, envy, and competition. Even positive comparisons, such as "You're the best player" are potentially damaging because a child can find it hard to live up to this image. If you let your child know you appreciate him for the unique individual he is, he'll be more likely to value himself too.

Offer empathy. If your child compares himself unfavorably to his siblings or friends ("Why can't I catch the ball like Sadie?"), show him empathy and then emphasize one of his strengths. For instance, say, "You're right. Sadie is good at catching. And you're good at painting pictures." This can help your child learn that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that he doesn't have to be perfect to feel good about himself.

Provide encouragement. Every child needs the kind of support from loved ones that signals, "I believe in you. I see your effort. Keep going!" Encouragement means acknowledging progress — not just rewarding achievement. So if your preschooler is struggling to fasten his snaps, say, "You're trying very hard and you almost have it!" instead of, "Not like that. Let me do it."

There's a difference between praise and encouragement. One rewards the task while the other rewards the person ("You did it!" rather than "I'm proud of you!"). Praise can make a child feel that he's only "good" if he does something perfectly. Encouragement, on the other hand, acknowledges the effort. "Tell me about your drawing. I see that you like really like yellow" is more helpful than saying, "That's the most beautiful picture Iin the world." Too much praise can sap self-esteem because it can create pressure to perform and set up a continual need for approval from others. So dole out the praise judiciously and offer encouragement liberally; it will your child grow up to feel good about himself.

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