Research shows that low self-esteem is associated with depression in adolescents and lower achievement in school.  How can parents help their children to build healthy self esteem?

High self-esteem can be dangerous

One would think that it is obvious that children should have high self-esteem, but research shows otherwise. For example, a child told he is “so smart” when his ability is only average could, conceivably develop an unrealistically high opinion of his abilities. He could then be in for quite a shock when he performs below what he expected. Another outcome could be that he stops making an effort to do well because he falsely assumes he doesn’t need to put effort out since he’s so smart.

Being told he’s smarter or better than others can lead to arrogance and callousness as well. Going to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, John Rosemond, an author in this area, recommended breaking down children’s self-esteem so that it does not become artificially inflated. That’s really bad advice. The result of that tactic can also be a child giving up trying: He figures that his parents are telling him he’s not so smart after all, so why make an effort to reach for the impossible?

The same conclusion came from research reported in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2007. Investigators attempted to encourage failing children to make more effort in school by sending them emails that said, “Students who have high self-esteem not only get better grades, but they remain self-confident and assured.” Therefore, each one needed to “hold your head-and your self-esteem-high.” That plan backfired; those students’ grades actually dropped.

This makes sense. I imagine a failing student would look at the email and say, “This doesn’t apply to me. I’m not confident and assured. In fact, receiving this message rubs in my face that I’m not the one that fits this description.”

These different examples show that a child can end up with low self-esteem in spite of parent’s and educator’s efforts to accomplish the opposite. Then, the child that doesn’t think well of himself can turn to drugs, feel alienated, and fail in school.

So what’s the solution to helping a child develop realistic self-esteem?

A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology made a distinction between“person praise” and “process praise.” An example of “person praise” might be “You’re so smart” while process praise could be, “You tried hard.” The researchers had children play an internet game and children randomly received the person praise. The problem is that when children lost, they felt ashamed of losing so the message did not build up their self-esteem. The children who received process praise, on the other hand, were able to utilize it to keep on trying and keep up their morale.

Being smart creates obligations

There’s another reason why person praise is a mistake: If a child is smart, who should take credit? If you think about it, it is not the child; it’s a gift. In fact, I would go further. If the child was given such a gift, then it seems to me that it carries with it a huge obligation. That is, gifts should not be squandered. Being smart is only the beginning: What you do with that potential is what matters. So, to a smart child, a parent might say, “You were blessed to have been given a good head – now you need to show you appreciate that by working hard.”

In this way, the child is neither built up nor taken down because of his brains but rather shown the importance of putting it to good use. This in turn keeps his self-esteem intact; he can feel blessed to have been given this gift while at the same time he will recognize that it does obligate him to use it well.

This method of dealing with the self-esteem issue can be thought of as a combination of process praise and taking a look at the big picture. That big picture refers to our relationship with our Creator and what He/She wants of us. In a sense, for a gifted child, it introduces humility into the mix so that the praise will not artificially inflate the child’s opinion of himself.

What to say to a child who is struggling

Bringing in the big picture is actually quite powerful in helping children who have all different capabilities. For example, when a child is challenged in school, a parent can say, “Yes, it is harder for you than some of your classmates. But you know what? You are learning how to work hard. You’re developing patience and persistence. These are amazing qualities. And your friends might not have that opportunity. So in the end, you are developing important qualities that students who find it easy may not develop.”

The same principle of combining process praise with a look at the big picture might also be useful in talking with children who are in trouble at school. Such children may have low self-esteem for any number of reasons. Perhaps there was a divorce, or parents are too busy with finances or illness to pay attention to him. Perhaps messages he received in school about his abilities or how well he fit in were hurtful. How do we build up that self-esteem?

The key is to accept the child

The most important message a parent can give a child is “You’re okay. We love you because you’re you.” This means that even if that child has been sitting in the Principal’s office, our love for him does not diminish. In spite of the value of process praise over person praise, the message nevertheless here is person praise. Why? The answer is that we are not praising behavior but rather conveying acceptance of who he is. The teen should not feel that we are disappointed in him because this will lead to further depression and a greater detour onto the wrong path.

Now, let’s answer the questions: Why do the parents love him because he is who he is? Who is he anyway? Do we even know who he is anymore? The answer to these questions is: We don’t, but life is growth and change for all of us. We accept a person because he is who he is even if we don’t quite know who he is.

Nevertheless, it is important to also restore this child’s belief in himself and this can only come through process praise. Person praise gives the important message of global acceptance and unconditional love but process praise lets the child know his strengths.

Thus, the parents might also say to him, “You were so kind to help your younger brother do X,” or “You always have been a respectful person/hard worker/neat and clean/whatever and we appreciate that.” The key is to find things you truly regard in your child and then offer them to him or her in the course of conversation. It is no surprise that if the process praise is based on good character, it is that much more powerful. The goal is for the child to start knowing himself and feeling good about who he is. Rather than achieve high self-esteem, the result is having realistic self-esteem and that is so much more valuable.

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