Respect and approval or ‘esteem’ for all aspects of the self is key to: psychological well-being; good relationship building; feeling a sense of belonging; and having the ability to be compassionate towards all living things. Healthy self-esteem allows people to face challenges in life and grow whilst people with low self-esteem tend to avoid the challenges for fear of failure or being overwhelmed.
Whilst self-esteem tends to remain stable through childhood and equal for boys and girls, there is a marked decrease in self-esteem as children enter adolescence. This decline is particularly significant for teenage girls. We know that the overall decline is due to the big developmental leap at this time. Young people are spending less time with their families and it’s a time when the approval of peers becomes a more important determinant of self-esteem than parenting. The dramatic drop in self-esteem for girls at this time is linked to puberty and body image. Teenage girls with lower self-esteem are more vulnerable to perceptions of ideal body images particularly those portrayed in social and general media. Children build self-esteem in their families. Research has shown that ‘happy parents’ or ‘care-givers’ make for ‘happy children’. There are a number of strategies we can use to build healthy self-esteem in our children and families.
Showing acceptance of all family members as unique individuals each with their own likes and dislikes supports children in listening to and being able to trust their own voice.
In Practice: Encourage children to express their own opinions and feelings about their lives. Help your child to learn that having a different opinion or feeling about something is okay. Mealtimes can be a great opportunity for this, aim to eat together as often as possible. Research shows that children who eat regular family meals together have higher vocabulary, higher self-esteem, higher academic performance and a lower risk of substance misuse.
Encourage all family members, regardless of age, to accomplish age appropriate tasks independently. Children and teenagers can develop a ‘have a go attitude’ and reduce avoidance due to fear of failure.
In Practice: Involve children in household tasks even when it might mean that they take a little longer with little or nervous hands! Use this time to promote positive can do attitudes.
Create Special Time
Make time for one another and demonstrate how special each family member is by listening without any distraction. Approving, responsive and nurturing parents are more likely to build high levels of self-esteem in children and in each other.
In Practice: Take 10 to 15 minutes a day with your children doing what they would like to do (within reason!). See if you can be entirely led by them for that short space of time and give your undivided attention. It doesn’t sound like long but it can be a challenge to work this into your day – have a go! Remember to also make time for your significant other and yourself and remember you are special. Research shows that a happy parental relationship is strongly linked to healthy self-esteem in children.
Provide Emotional Education
Support children in understanding and making space for emotions (for example ‘I wonder if that film made you feel sad?’). This gives children a good command of emotions rather than feeling overwhelmed by them. Helping children to recognise, understand and manage feelings from an early age significantly reduces instances of depression and anxiety through the rest of adolescence.
In Practice: Have a go at developing an emotional vocabulary for your family and practice commenting on feelings. Be brave, have a go and watch the positive effect it has on family members. Remember to give lots of verbal praise for behaviour you would like to see again. Tell them what you are happy about and how happy it makes you.
Love your Body
Teach children to respect and love their physical body from a young age. Learning to be in tune with the ‘messages’ that their bodies give them will empower them, particularly in a western culture which does not always ‘esteem’ the body.
In Practice: Teach children about healthy eating and exercise and involve them in cooking and meal planning. Planting vegetables with children (in pots if space is limited) can be a great joint activity. Put a high value on sleep in your family. Research shows that children who get enough sleep have better brain function, better focus at school, greater creativity, reduced risk of obesity and are better able to manage emotions. Explore and understand the way the media portrays body image with children, particularly girls as they approach adolescence. Remember everyone enjoys physical praise even teenagers can still enjoy a cuddle!
Make Time to Play!
Making time and space for play and having fun together boosts the whole families self-esteem and is also key to child development.
In Practice: Take a trip to the local park together and jump on a swing. It’s easy to forget what fun that can be when you haven’t done it for a while. Take an hour after dinner to bring out a board game that the whole family can play or play hide and seek together.
These things don’t have to happen every day but maybe once or twice a week would be fun. Remember that special circumstances (parental separation, adopted and fostered children, a school or house move, death in the family, illness in the family, learning difficulties, physical disability etc.) make these strategies even more key to the healthy development of self-esteem.
Dr. Elise Kearney
Dr Elise Kearney, mother of three and Chartered Consultant Child and Family Psychologist trained as a Clinical Psychologist in Glasgow. She has over 15 years of experience working with children and families in the NHS and privately. Dr Kearney offers 1:1 assessment and treatment sessions for a variety of difficulties including; difficulties stemming from family separation, bedtime or sleep problems, feeding difficulties or “fussy eating”, dealing with anger or “temper tantrums” and separation anxiety, difficulties around potty training, sibling rivalry or difficulties with sharing, starting nursery/school and transition to high school or College/University, anxiety, panic, phobias, low self-esteem, attachment difficulties, low mood and depression, behavioural problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bereavement (this list is not exclusive).
Dr Kearney runs a clinic at The Therapies Centre, The Fold, Bransford and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org 07713755224 or find out more about the service she offers at www.thefold.org.uk/natural-therapy-centre/consultant-child-family-psychology/