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The Seven Steps to Self Esteem

By Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D.

Self-esteem is about having pride in one's self, but it also means something more: The ability to maintain, and often regain, a positive view of one's self no matter what. A healthy self-esteem allows us to go on trying things we've failed at, to strive when we haven't reached our full potential, and to take on new challenges. These characteristics are essential to all learning.

Unfortunately, adults often expect children to do all of these things far more often than they do themselves! It's important to keep in mind that sometimes we ask too much of our children. The good news is that you can help your child gain self-confidence by providing unconditional love, setting realistic expectations, and understanding how positive self-esteem unfolds in the following seven steps. With your loving support, patience, and wisdom, your child can believe in himself, through thick and thin.

  1. Self-comfort. Learning to comfort one's self in the face of failure is the first step in building self-esteem. Your child may need to blow off steam before he's able to settle himself down. He may beat himself up, saying things like, "I stink." Eventually, the feelings will become less intense.
  2. Accepting the comfort of others. Once your child knows that someone else understands, he is no longer alone-the worst part of feeling like a failure. You might be tempted to undo his negative thoughts by saying, "You don't stink. You just had some bad pitches." This can backfire. He might feel that no one knows how bad he is feeling, or that you are just trying to protect him from the truth. Instead, take him seriously-without agreeing with his conclusions. Try saying, "You really hate striking out." This way, you are shifting the conversation from how badly he played to how bad he feels.
  3. Gaining perspective. In his darkest moments, your child might expand his failure from a single episode to a life-defining moment: "I am the worst baseball player in the history of the world!" He may need your help to see that he has drawn some conclusions that aren't true. He may also blame others: "It was a lousy pitch. The coach shouldn't have said anything. Why did Dad tell me to choke up on the bat?" He might then think, "I might be a bad player, but Jason and Noah stink, too." As he begins to forgive himself, he'll stop being so critical of others.
  4. Self-acceptance. Gradually, as your child begins to realize that this isn't the end of the world, he begins to imagine the unimaginable: His next turn at bat. Why? He's figured out that he doesn't have to be the best at baseball. He can even be the worst, and still decide that he likes himself. Beneath his acceptance of himself lies his experience-from further back than he can remember-of his parents' unconditional love.
  5. Recovery of self-esteem. Soon your child will think and feel the way he usually does: "I'm pretty good at some things. I like myself, and people like me." Over time and with practice, as he learns to remind himself of his own value and the unconditional acceptance of the people who love him, he'll have an easier time dealing with his own failures.
  6. Humor and hope for the future. No one wants to be teased, but your child can learn to smile and even laugh when he makes a mistake. Having some solid successes helps develop this sense of humor. Once he learns not to take himself too seriously, he can protect his self-esteem.
  7. Asking for help. When he's ready to try again, he will need help breaking his challenging task into smaller, developmentally appropriate steps-easiest ones first-so that he can experience small successes one at a time.

Your child can be reminded of what he has learned from his failures-to comfort himself and let others comfort him, to put things into perspective, to accept himself, to salvage his self-esteem with humor, and to ask for help. By knowing this, he can brace himself as he faces his challenges.

How You Influence Your Child's Self-Esteem

Your contribution to your child's self-esteem begins at birth with the unconditional love you give him. Self-esteem depends on self-love, which, in turn, depends on being loved by others. Very quickly, a baby experiences small triumphs that help him feel that he matters. Even in the first weeks and months of life, a baby learns that when he smiles and coos his parents melt; he discovers that his own actions can make things happen. These earliest interactions are the foundation for self-esteem.

With each new challenge-sitting up, standing, walking, or speaking-your child takes in your words of encouragement and learns to make them his own: "You can do it. It's okay if you make a mistake. Just keep trying." He watches and listens to you intently, soaking up your every move in an intense effort to be "just like" Mommy or Daddy.

As your child gets older, he will notice how you respond to your own successes and failures. You can model how you buoy your own self-esteem by openly putting your failures into perspective. It's easiest to do this with things that matter the least: burning the chicken, singing off-key, or looking for something you've lost only to find that it's right where it was supposed to be. These are chances to show how you express your frustration with yourself, pull yourself together, gain perspective, and use your sense of humor to sustain positive feelings about yourself.

Self-esteem is critical for learning, for without it a child can't face and learn from his mistakes. It's also a prerequisite for getting along with others, empathy, and altruism. When a child has a positive yet realistic view of himself, he can be more positive about others, go out of his way to understand them, and make room for their needs.

In contrast, when a child suffers from low self-esteem he's easily threatened. Low self-esteem occurs if a child is held to unreasonable expectations that go beyond his developmental stage; he is bound to fail. If he is pushed, he may accumulate more failures than successes, leaving him little to build on. Then, he'll underestimate his potential and criticize himself more than he deserves. When a child is challenged-for example, by a learning disability-he is at risk of failing more than he succeeds and of feeling overwhelmed by the challenges he faces. He might conclude that he's just not worth it.

By contrast, an overconfident child's belief in his abilities surpasses reality.

He may be the victim of over praising. (See box, opposite.) But it is more likely that he is trying to make up for underlying insecurities or that he is valued for his achievements rather than for who he is. When confronted with his limitations, the overconfident child denies, avoids, or falls apart. His self-esteem is too fragile to allow him to face the truth.

The children in both cases can be helped with their parents' support-not with criticism or pressure to perform. All children need to know that their value-to the important people in their lives and to themselves-goes far beyond how fast they can run or how far they can hit a baseball.

You can help build your child's confidence by giving unconditional love.

A Word On Over praising

Some parents, eager to support their child's self-esteem, mistakenly believe that frequent praise-even for the smallest accomplishments-is the way to go. Despite the best intentions, over praising interferes with a child's developing ability to become his own cheerleader and to take small mistakes in stride. Surprisingly, the over praised child may struggle more from low self-esteem than from overconfidence.

A child who is over praised may become dependent on your feedback and is bound to have trouble taking all the positive reinforcement seriously. He'll do better with less frequent, more authentic praise. Look for the small, concrete things that he did right-things that he might not notice himself-to comment on.

Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., a child psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School, is co-author with T. Berry Brazelton of many books on early childhood development.

Copyright Scholastic Inc. Sep 2005