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Kids self esteem

Child self-esteem and self-confidence

Toddler Development - toddler playing piano

What is healthy self-confidence?

The Cambridge dictionary defines self-confidence as ‘behaving calmly because you have no doubts about your ability or knowledge.’ It is belief in yourself, belief that you are worthwhile and loveable and that you are capable of meeting any challenges you face.

As parents, I think we all want our children to have healthy self-confidence, a positive and realistic view of themselves and their abilities. One of the reasons it is so important, is that self-confidence has such a strong influence on our behaviour. If self-confidence were a tree, the fruits of the tree would be things like: being able to try new things, being able to accept both praise and constructive criticism, being a gracious winner and a gracious loser, feeling OK about making mistakes sometimes, being able to say sorry and make amends, and the ability to be assert your rights in a calm way. Of course, none of us are able to do all these things perfectly all the time, but a healthy level of self-confidence make these things so much easier.

And if self-confidence were like a tree, the ‘roots’ of the tree, the foundations, would be the environment we provide for our children. We know that child self-confidence is much more likely to grow if children are provided with an environment in which: the child is loved for who he/she is, not what she does, and where he/she is allowed to feel how he/she really feels, and is given the message that he/she can cope with these feelings. Furthermore, to develop healthy self-confidence children need an environment in which they are given age-appropriate opportunities to be independent and responsible, and where there are clear family roles and boundaries.

What role can parents play in helping their kids self-esteem develop?

When our children are young, as parents we play a very important role in helping to foster our children’s self-confidence. After all, we are responsible for their day-to-day care, for nurturing their skills and for giving them love and support. Here are some practical things parents can do to provide an environment for child self-confidence to grow:

1. Give them positive, realistic messages about themselves

Cathy is busy, tired and stressed. She’s trying to multi-task, making dinner whilst supervising homework and folding the laundry. Her five year old son, Andrew, runs past the dinner table and knocks over a pitcher of water which drowns the salad she just made, and smashes on the floor. She loses her temper. “Why do you always have to make a mess? I’ve told you a million times not to run in the house. You know how clumsy you are! Why do you never do what you are told? For goodness sake, get out of the way and let me clean it up.”

In the scenario above, it is pretty understandable that Cathy feels angry, stressed and overwhelmed. However, her reaction also gives Andrew some powerful messages about what he is like as a person. Her words imply that he is clumsy, disobedient and ineffectual. Now we all have times when we lose our tempers and say things we don’t really mean. But if this was happening frequently, it is very likely that Andrew would come to believe some of these negative messages about himself, and these beliefs might start to affect his behaviour. “After all, if Mum thinks I’m disobedient and pretty hopeless, what is the point of even trying to do the right thing?” As parents it is important to tune in to the messages we give our kids about themselves, and to try where possible to keep these messages balanced and realistic.

So if Cathy had her time again, what would be a better way of responding to Andrew’s behaviour? Perhaps she could have said “Andrew, you were running in the house, and because of this you knocked over the water. I’m feeling very frustrated because I just prepared the salad and now it is ruined. Running in the house is not acceptable. The way to fix this situation is to get a cloth and start helping me to wipe up the water. After that, you must help me to make a new salad, rather than watching TV like you planned.” By saying something like this, Cathy is giving Andrew a clear message that his behaviour was unacceptable without blaming or belittling him. She is also asking him to take responsibility for his behaviour, with the expectation that he is capable of being part of the solution.

2. Use the power of praise

We all love to be praised and appreciated, and kids are no different. Praise is one of the most positive ways to shape our children’s behaviour. However as parents, we can also use our praise strategically, as a tool to foster our children’s self-confidence. Descriptive praise is a strategy in which you simply describe the positive things your child is doing with warmth and enthusiasm, which allows your child to praise him/herself. For example “Wow, you’ve done a drawing. I see you’ve used thick red textas and gone squiggle, squiggle squiggle, and dot, dot, dot. I love the way you’ve coloured this bit over here with green crayon. How did you think to do this?” By using descriptive praise, we let our kids know that we really see them – it forces us to take the time to notice what they are doing, rather than mechanically saying “that’s lovely darling.” It makes our praise more meaningful and more powerful.

3. Model self-confidence

Our kids watch us all the time, and through watching us they learn how to deal with the problems they face. For instance, by watching us argue, they learn how to argue, by watching us stand up for our rights they learn how to be assertive, by watching us take responsibility for our mistakes and make amends, they learn how to say sorry. This means that if we want our kids to be self-confident, we need to lead the way. We need to provide a family culture in which self confident behaviours such as assertiveness and sportsmanship are modelled and valued. This doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect. Rather, that in our imperfection, we show our kids how to make mistakes, find out where we went wrong and try again tomorrow.

For more information see Emotional Development and Toddler.

Article provided by Nicki Kemp, July 2008

Nicki is a Clinical Psychologist working in private practice, who specialises in working with children and families. She is also the co-author of the Creating Confident Kids Program at Macquarie University. www.nickikemp.com.au

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