Protect Your Child’s Self-Esteem

Want your child to have high self-esteem? Read on for some examples of what not to do.

All conscientious parents want their children to feel good about themselves-that is, to have high self-esteem. To accomplish this, parents must treat their children in a way that makes them feel loved, capable, and successful in achieving their developmental goals (the children have to do their part, too). But sometimes, our language, culture, or family traditions promote expressions and practices that can hurt our children's self-esteem rather than raise it. This article points out some key "self-esteem killers" to avoid.

But first, this disclaimer: parents may not judge or criticize themselves for having used any of these expressions or practices in the past.

Self-Esteem Killer #1

Having low expectations for a child and discouraging her from having high expectations for herself

A severely depressed client once told me that her mother repeatedly warned her (as a child) never to hope for anything good to happen in her life; that way, she would never feel disappointed. She grew up without disappointment, but suffered heavy consequences for her low expectations. She never believed she could accomplish anything, never gave herself credit for an achievement (no matter how legitimate), and never felt good about herself. She still struggles with low self-esteem at age 48.

On the other hand, studies show that children whose parents hold high expectations for them (combined with a flexible, democratic parenting style) tend to have the highest self-esteem. Children who simply believe they can accomplish goals develop resilience and can overcome obstacles and multiple failures to achieve them. Parents that expect their kids to achieve and teach them "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" will help build determined, resilient, and success-minded individuals.

To feel good about themselves, children must reach specific developmental goals. These include forming the ability to trust, having a sense of autonomy, feeling a sense of competence (both in completion of tasks as well as social competence), building individuality or identity, and achieving a level of responsibility. Therefore, parenting techniques that delay or hinder these goals will also decrease a child's self-esteem. The following practices fall into the group,

Self-Esteem Killer(s) #2

  • Shaming
  • Promoting confusion and doubt
  • Blaming or guilt-tripping
  • Suppressing or punishing emotional expression
  • Criticizing, putting down, or implying incompetence/ inferiority
  • Punishing individuality

Expressions such as You're a bad boy, Shut up, and What's wrong with you? fill children with shame and doubt and lead them to conclude "I am bad." When children misbehave, talking to them in this manner does not separate the child from the behavior, and rather than addressing the problem with the behavior, these expressions simply categorize the child as "bad."

Why-questions, such as Why did you do that?, also tend to promote confusion and doubt, and may train a child to second-guess his decisions (to a fault). Why-questions naturally evoke defenses in children and make it very difficult for them to explain their actions. If you really want to know why your child is acting a certain way, try phrasing your question as "What are you doing?", "What are you trying to accomplish?", or "Where do you think this behavior will get you?"

Should-statements, such as You shouldn't do that, also raise confusion and doubt and leave children feeling unclear about where their parents stand. If you don't want your child to do something, saying "I don't want you to do that," "I feel angry/annoyed/nervous when you do that," or simply "Please don't do that" sends a much clearer message.

Some commonly used phrases that imply incompetence or inferiority include Why can't you be more like your brother/sister/cousin/friend?, That was so stupid, what were you thinking?, and Why can't you do that? I can do it just fine! The messages in these statements-comparing, putting down, and one-upping-almost always leave children feeling incompetent.

Finally, I have witnessed parents make statements to their children in family therapy that had a clear, negative impact on their self-esteem. These prize-winning self-esteem killers include If you loved me, you would listen better, Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about, and See, that's what you get, I told you so. These statements send the message that if you act independently, express feelings, or make a solo decision, then you deserve to be punished and feel guilty. If a child heard these messages repeatedly, imagine how difficult it would be for him to develop a sense of individuality and responsibility.

Self-Esteem Killer #3

Failing to set limits with a child.

Kids will tell you that all they need to feel happy is to get their way all the time. This "I want" syndrome may be normal for infants and young toddlers, but soon the world stops accepting this attitude, leaving the child feeling ashamed, incompetent, confused, and not accepted. A child will not win any popularity contests demanding his way all the time and refusing to share or make compromises.

Besides, parents have to set a limit some time. I once had a client demand that her parents spend $50,000 to rent a club, band, and limousine for her 18th birthday party. When they refused, she exploded, because they had said yes to just about everything she had asked for up to that point. Even if the parents spent the 50K and continued to let her have her way, her self-esteem would eventually plummet when peers rejected her and other adults (teachers, bosses, church leaders, police officers, etc.) refused to give in to her demands.

...that is, giving a painful consequence to discourage an unwanted behavior (usually in the form of physical pain, public humiliation, or excessive isolation). Although it may produce immediate results, punishment does not teach children to act better over time. Research shows that after only a few trials, punishment loses its effectiveness, so parents must keep increasing punishments to discourage problem behaviors. Furthermore, children learn to be manipulative and evasive to avoid punishment, rather than changing their behavior, and this further hurts their self-esteem.

Repeated punishment can foster in a child a deep sense of fear, anger, and resentment toward parents, and a chronic sense of being "bad." Again, with punishment, a child will tend to believe "I am bad" rather than "what I am doing is wrong," and the result is low self-esteem. Other techniques, such as delay of rewards and privileges or time-out, give parents a better opportunity to teach children about the problem with the behavior and avoid stressing the "bad character" of the child.