Helping children develop good self-esteem

Our sense of identity – meaning the knowledge of who we are – and liking who we are comes from all the people in our world.  We get to know ourselves at first from what others tell us.  If we sense we are liked and hear others say positive things about us, we start believing that we are worthy and feel good about ourselves.  The opposite, of course, is true too. If we hear time and again that we are not good or not coming up to expectations, we can’t develop positive opinions about ourselves and will feel bad about who we are.

This all starts very early in life.  You might think a baby is too young to be taking anything in but it might surprise you to know how much an infant picks up from our behaviours and words.  All this is stored on an unconscious level and forms the foundation of a child’s belief about him or herself.  It also affects the child’s perception of the people in the world and whether or not the world itself is a good or bad place to be.

Clearly the most important people are those on whom the child relies for nurturance. These are usually the parents but can obviously also be caregivers, grandparents, child-minders, babysitters and older siblings.

Sometimes parents believe they should behave towards their children in the same manner their parents did and tend to revert to less than positive parenting.  It isn’t true that we have to repeat the mistakes of the past. Many of us might have faced negativity and lack of caring during our early childhood but we need to try to make changes to our thinking to ensure that our own children meet with a positive, loving approach.  A good self-esteem is truly a gift that we receive from others and can lay the foundation for later success in life.

Essentially, there are three easy steps to follow that will help provide a positive environment for your child:

  • Practice being able to maintain positive facial expressions and body language. Children can read your face and will do so when they are looking at you.Make sure you smile a lot; make sure your expression is one of approval and love rather than censure.  Body language counts as well.  Hug your children; put an arm around your child; pat his or her head or shoulder, or physically draw the child towards you.  Negative body language consists of gestures that push your child away from you, or suggest withdrawal, like crossing your arms when facing the child, taking an angry, defiant stance, and pointing a finger. Shaking your fist at a child, tapping angrily on a table top or baring your teeth in anger will be perceived by a child as unloving and threatening.  Such a child will feel unloved and threatened.
  • Use a positive and loving tone of voice.We sometimes forget that rather than the content of our verbal message to a child, the tone of our voice conveys important messages too.  Harsh, irritated tones are negative and can often be accompanied by sarcasm and criticism.  If you aren’t sure, think of the tone of voice you use when speaking to your boss.  This is the same tone that you should use when speaking to your child. You shouldn’t be speaking in nicer tones to people you don’t know – your family needs the same courtesy.
  • Make positive statements or affirmations.Have you heard about a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’? It’s well known in education where children who are aware that their teachers approve of them tend to do better than their potential might suggest. On the other hand, bright children do less well than they should due to their lack of belief in themselves, mirrored in the attitudes of their educators.  So our children will become that which we expect of him or her; our child will achieve what we believe he or she is capable of doing or achieving.  In order for this to happen, we need to convey positive beliefs in the child.  “I know you can do it!” “You are wonderful!” “You are capable and smart!” “You can be anything you want to be!” “You are a winner” are examples of affirming language.

Too often, when a child presents with a learning difficulty, we focus on prior teaching and send them for remedial help to catch up on missed steps in the learning process.  This is not often successful – or only partially.  Another factor that plays a huge role in preventing or causing learning problems is self-esteem.  A negative self-esteem plays havoc with a child’s ability to perform in school because he won’t have the confidence to do well and the belief that he is capable of doing well.  A good self-esteem makes us proud of ourselves and our achievements and develops a belief in our capacity to succeed.

 [1]Content summarized from the book “Solving your child’s reading problems” by Ricki Linksman. Published by MJF Books.

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