The saddest family walked into my room not long ago. The tension in the air was so great, I could hardly breathe. The parents smiled and were quite pleasant as they addressed me and their children, so what was I picking up? The daughter, a teen, had a glum expression and sat with her arms crossed. She, clearly, was unhappy. But was she just a manipulative person who was cross when she didn’t get her way? That seemed to be her parents’ thought as they argued and negotiated their way through the first 20 minutes of our session.

Now, in truth, if these parents had been operating from the rest of this website, they would have gotten gold stars. They were not abusive. They were not putting the children down. They had good rules. They stuck to the rules (more or less). They tried to not let the kids walk all over them. Was it their fault that the children needed so much control?

How To Create Low Self Esteem Without Abusing Your Child

The answer is: Yes. Yes, it is their fault. The object of controlling a child is to foster self-control. The object of discipline is to foster self-discipline. If parenting is not accomplishing that then all the rules, all the consequences, are for naught. You will only foster rebellion. Or resentment, or just plain pain. This child was in pain. And the worst of it was that with all the rules and all the consequences and all the arguments, negotiations, and deals, she was totally convinced that whatever was wrong was wrong with her. Even when she blamed her parents, in her heart, she believed it was her. I could tell. This is how the best-meaning parents get their children to have low self-esteem and, as adults, pervasive, low-grade depression.

Happiness Comes From Knowing Someone Likes You

The missing ingredient was happiness — and love. In order for the entire system to work, the family has to like each other–and their behavior, at least some of it. This brings happiness. When the basic liking is there, all else can be accomplished. It is the building block for a family to help foster its children’s growth and development.

I took a deep breath and said, “This does not seem like a happy family.”
Simultaneously, the mom and dad replied, “That’s true. We’re exhausted from all this.”

So I told them about John Gottman’s ratio. Gottman is a researcher who has worked in the area of marriages but his findings make sense for families as well. He found that there is a number of criticisms compared to praises beyond which a marriage crumbles, and that number is one (1) criticism to five (5) praises. That’s right. The minimum to keep a marriage off the rocks is 1 bad:5 good. 1 bad remark for every four good ones is insufficient for happiness. Same with kids. Surely, surely if a marriage must have at least five positives for every negative, then the growing souls of young children, so dependent on the positive regard of their parents must have more.

Happiness Comes From Knowing You’re Doing Something Right

So, BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION EXPERTS, BEWARE!! Control is not everything. For the whole thing to work, there must be a feeling of, “Gee, I gotta be doing something right.” The child must feel good about himself, his behavior, his choices, his ability to control himself, the works. Otherwise, how will he ever know when he’s “got it”?

I gave that family two homework assignments. The first was to have fun with each other. And the second was find five positives to say about each of their children before they got out to the car!

Folks, I know it’s hard. Especially if you are a perfectionist. But trust me, children weren’t born at 40 years of age. Growing up means allowing them to make mistakes and telling them they did a good job if they tried. It means being reasonable about criticism and bountiful with praise.

When my oldest was born, I wore her all day in the snugli. Some old bat told me I was going to spoil her. Well, she’s an adult now and you know what? The snugli didn’t spoil her and neither did my praise. I’m proud of her to this day–and I’m not afraid to tell her so.

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