Helping Kids Increase Self-Esteem

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Reader’s Question

This is our background: we’ve been together since 1989; we married July 2009; our first son was born August 2009; our second son was born February 2012.

Our nearly-3-year-old is struggling with self-esteem and it breaks my heart. Has this come from his witnessing our aggressive arguments? He is a bright, happy, sociable little boy in the main, but he won’t do anything out of his comfort zone, saying “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to”, although his behaviour indicates that he really would like to.

I want my little boys to believe they can do anything. But my little boy says he “can’t”. His day care teacher recently mentioned his self-esteem, saying that if he does a piece of artwork he isn’t bothered by it. It’s as though he doesn’t take pride in what he does. He refuses to dance, saying he “can’t”, although I have seen him when he thought no one was looking. My husband and I praise him regularly (not just for the end result, but for the trying and trying).

Regarding the arguments: I was raised with shouting and hitting; I know it’s wrong and, until recently, I had successfully stopped using these as my default, go-to tools in arguments. My husband knows that my normal-meter is skewed when it comes to my handling of conflict, so we employed techniques to help manage our issues in a calm manner.

Prior to the boys, if we rowed we would give each other space to calm down and reflect on the issues, then regroup and resolve. Since the boys, my husband will not give me space, takes no responsibility for his part in the argument, and offers non-apologies. He has also begun gaslighting me. Given my past, I especially do not want to lose my cool with my children, and it is almost as though I use every ounce of my patience in dealing with my two spirited boys, leaving none for my husband. It feels as though he is pushing every single button I have, knowing that I am operating on zero, and have had no more than three hours sleep at a time for the last eight months. I am mortified to admit that I have reverted back to my old ways of shouting and hitting. I lose it. And my husband has begun losing it. And we have done so in front of our precious little boy.

These are not the spouses or parents my husband and I wish to be. These are not the role models we wish for our boys. We are both deeply ashamed that our little boy witnessed these bitter arguments, and we are both resolved to do what is necessary to ensure this never happens again, to enter into further couples counselling, and — most importantly — to work on restoring our little boy’s confidence.

Psychologist’s Reply

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It seems like there are two related issues here. The first involves your youngest son’s self-esteem. Self-esteem is somewhat of a nebulous concept involving things like self-worth, self-confidence and self-image. However, the short version is that it relates to how your son thinks about himself and, especially, what he can do. Thankfully, there are some great tips for parents on how to help children increase their self-esteem.

One of the problems with self-esteem is that people have faulty beliefs about themselves and their capabilities. Thus, I would start by helping your son recognize and embrace his positive qualities. Ask him to list all the good things about himself. He can think of new ones every day. When you’re doing this exercise, you may start to get a sense of the irrational beliefs he has about himself. He may say things like, “I can’t draw” or “I can’t dance.” Find out what is creating these beliefs and correct them.

One common irrational belief is that kids may believe that they need to be perfect and that they cannot fail or make mistakes. Teach your son that mistakes and failure can be useful. Talk about what he can learn from failure and what he could do differently next time. Be sure to mention that the effort involved in something does matter, even if the result isn’t what we want. It is important to remember that the world’s great artists, musicians, inventors, athletes, writers, politicians, etc. failed many times. You should also role model how to deal with the mistakes that you make. This means you cannot be too hard on yourself, especially in front of him. Remember that children are sponges who soak in what we teach, even if it’s accidental.

Another great way to build self-esteem is to give him ways to be successful. Give him age-appropriate chores (this boosts competency) and as many choices as you can. Choices and an insistence on him doing things for himself will make him feel empowered. However, please make certain that these choices are things they he can do with a high degree of success. As he’s doing these chores and implementing choices, look for opportunities to sincerely (notice that I said sincerely; fake gushing for trivial things is not good) praise him for good behavior and the things that he does well. If his behavior needs to change, focus on the behavior and not your child. Also, spend time with him alone (showing that you value his company), listen closely to him (this helps him believe that he is someone worth hearing) and give him lots of affection and encouragement.

Finally — and here is where the two issues collide — it is important that he is raised in a safe and loving home environment. Kids who don’t feel safe are at the greatest risk for poor self-esteem. A child whose parents fight often may believe he has no control over his environment and become depressed. Your idea about entering into couples counseling is a good one. There you can learn how to communicate more effectively, and even how to argue constructively. You will always disagree; you just need to learn how to do it better. I also think it will help if you can start getting more sleep. Whenever people are fatigued, their usual resistance is lowered and behavior that once was controlled is now allowed free reign. As such, making good sleep a priority will help a lot.

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