Your child’s self-esteem is constantly being shaped by what you say and do—even when you aren’t noticing. Many parents have the best of intentions but make mistakes that can be very damaging to their child’s self-esteem. In my work with children and adults, I’ve noticed that there are particular things parents can say that can severely damage a child’s sense of self.
If your child comes home in tears, all you want to do is help them feel better. But many parents make mistakes when attempting to soothe or console their children. Rather than building their self-esteem, they hinder it. The long-term effects include the child either feeling invalidated or the child not developing the skills needed to handle certain situations as adults. When we listen and empathize rather than sympathize, children learn to get through the emotional turmoil.
It’s not just situations outside of the home that contribute to low self-esteem in children. Dr. John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, found that most parents say five negative or critical statements for every one positive statement to their children. It’s likely this is unintentional, “I’ve asked you 10 times to clean your room, why can’t you listen?” May be interpreted by your kiddo as hurtful, when you were really just frustrated. Add in the stress at school and within peer groups, it becomes more of a 10:1 ratio of negative to positives (in my opinion). Add in the nasty things they hear and see online and we may be closer to 100:1.
Low self-esteem in children is linked to a variety of behavioral and mental health problems that can begin now or later in life. Self-esteem influences our attitudes, relationships, behaviors, and emotions. When children don’t have the opportunity to express or figure out what their emotions are, they are losing a critical step in developing long-term and healthy self-esteem. Your child’s self-esteem depends on the things adults say and do now.
Stop Doing These Things and Improve Your Child’s Self-Esteem
- Making comparisons to others. Comparing your child to another kid, a sibling, or yourself as a child is something that can be like a dig to their self-esteem. You may not believe it, but that’s what they hear. For example. “Your sister was so good at math. I don’t understand why you’re not doing well in it,” or, “I was so good at that when I was your age.” Even comparisons to non-relative like, “so and so on the street. They’re doing so well at x, y, and z.” Those digs, or those comments, start to manifest in your kid’s brains as, “I’m not good enough.” That might not be your intention, but that’s what they’re hearing.
- Trying to fix things for them, rather than helping them figure it out on their own. When you’re talking to your kid or they’re coming home upset from something, or their self-esteem is a little bit down in the dumps, don’t say, “oh my gosh, I’m going to fix it for you so you feel better,” or “You’re the best, don’t feel sad.” Don’t fix it for them. Validate. What that means is, “wow. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. That must be really tough.”
- Asking rhetorical questions. Saying, “Why did you do that?” or “You should have . . .” can put a huge barrier between you and your child. Think about when you were a kid. Remember the thoughts and feelings that stuck with you when your parents or a teacher would ask a rhetorical question? I remember it would frustrate me and make me feel super invalidated. I’d think “I’m not an idiot. Why is this adult making me feel like I am?” Instead, ask them this: “Can you help me understand what’s going on? I want to help you so we don’t continue to have this discussion. How can I help?” This allows them to express themselves and allows you to hear how they are interpreting the information.
What You Can Do to Raise Your Child’s Self-Esteem
- Validate. Let your child tell you why they’re upset without interrupting or trying to fix the situation. This is going to really assist in building that long lasting self-esteem. So you can say, “I’m really sorry you’re feeling that way. That stinks. Is there anything I can do to help you? DON’T jump in and try to problem solve. Think about when you are venting to your friends about a problem at work. Do you just want to let off some steam? Probably. How do you feel when your friend says “Have you tried this? Why don’t you do ____ (insert thing you’ve already tried here)?” It’s so frustrating. Your children feel that too! Ask them to tell you little bit more about the situation. Or ask them if they want your opinion rather than giving it right away. Then check in later on to see how they’re feeling about the situation.
- Praise the process. Your child comes home with a B+ on his project, awesome. Praising the grade has been ingrained in our minds for decades, but don’t, at least not yet. “Your hard work on that project paid off! I’m so proud of you.” This lets him know that you notice how hard he is working and not just the grade. You can also bite your tongue. Avoid saying “See I told you….” BITE YOUR TONGUE. Anything that follows is invalidating, you are taking away their hard work.
- Explain praise. Use phrases that can be generic but add your own unique twist. Rather than just “Good job!” try, “Good job cleaning your room; it looks great!” Adding what the praise is for helps a child feel accomplished and proud, and develops self-esteem.
The more we try to observe how our words affect our children, and anyone we communicate with, the more effective our communication will be. Some old habits are difficult to change, but with a little awareness you can really help your child’s self-esteem and feel better about yourself as a parent.
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is The Guidance Girl. Her goal is to help YOU become the most confident person you know! Emily is an award-winning author Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, Educational Speaker, and parenting consultant. She travels around the country educating girls, women, and parents. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.