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Helping your child build a good self-image

by | Jun 11, 2020

A healthy self-worth and self-esteem are vital parts of becoming a well-rounded human being. Psychologist Michelle Nortje looks at how you can foster these qualities in your child.

Self-worth and self-esteem are integral parts of how a person thinks about themselves, how they respond to other people and build relationships, and how they react to successes as well as failures. If a parent can facilitate the strengthening of a child’s self-image, they are helping that child to feel confident about their place in the world, to feel valued and worthy.

A healthy self-image helps children to be able to make their own choices, take responsibility for their decisions and remain motivated even in the face of setbacks. A positive self-image and ‘ego-strength’ are protective factors in preventing depression and anxiety later on as teens or adults.

As adults, individuals who have built up their self-worth can feel more capable in their efforts at work and in relationships, believe in their capacity to learn and try new things, and feel assertive in their decision-making processes.

A healthy self-image shoud be fostered and strengthened by parents in the following ways:

Taking risks, making choices and solving problems
A very valuable lesson to learn growing up is to take responsibility for one’s own choices and decisions. In order to build a child’s confidence, they need to be able to take chances and stand by their choices, without thinking that Mom or Dad are always going to be there to solve a problem for them.

For example, imagine a child chooses not to take their jersey to school even when prompted that they might get cold. This is a lesson for them to take responsibility for their own body and understand their own needs and consequences for their choices.

Becoming good at things takes time and effort
Helping your child learn that noone can instantly be good at something new is very important. This means that a parent’s job is not always to praise a completed, perfect outcome, but rather to praise the small steps and attempts on the way to getting there.

For example, perhaps your child helped out making cupcakes at the weekend, but they didn’t get the icing on as smoothly as they wanted, and they become a bit upset. This would be a great opportunity to talk about practising and trying again next time, role modelling how to do something, and also pointing out the parts of the task that they were able to manage well.

Giving the right kind of praise
Praise that is non-specific and inaccurate isn’t helpful, as this teaches a child that they receive a positive outcome without putting in the work. For example, if a child can’t spell a word properly and a parent tells him he is doing a great job, the child cannot correct himself and he learns not to trust his parents’ feedback.
Praise and encouragement need to be specific and detailed in order to be effective. For example; “Good job on trying with your new spelling words; but how can I help you remember these few that you’re struggling with?” In this way, the parent has acknowledged and valued both the child’s attempts and their need for support.

Making their own age-appropriate choices
When a child feels that they have the opportunity to make their own choices and decisions (that are age-appropriate and limited within what is safe for their age and ability) they can begin to feel more powerful, included and valued.

This can be a simple choice when they are very small, such as asking them which vegetable they would prefer with dinner: gem squash or carrots. In defining the choices at first and not making the decision too large or overwhelming, you are acknowledging their unique likes and dislikes as an individual, while also showing them that they can have an impact on their environment. They then also learn the consequences of making these kinds of decisions: once they have decided on carrots, the child cannot change their mind once it is on their plate!

Chores as confidence boosters
Toddlers and older children can benefit from being included in the family’s chores and daily functioning. This can help them feel that they are an important and valued member of the family. It also helps to instil a sense of respect for one’s own and others’ space.

For example, a child who is encouraged to pack up their toys after playing with them, is learning that they can have some control over their surroundings, while being thoughtful of others. This teaches a child about an internal sense of pride and self-respect (parts of a healthy self-image) that is reliant on their actions, not on the actions of others.

Pursuing interests
All children (and adults) have their own unique set of strengths, likes and interests. If you see your child has a particular strength or interest, it can be helpful to encourage their attempts.

Sometimes a child will give up easily if they think there is a chance of failure as this might lead to them feeling worthless or that they have disappointed a parent. Instead, if a child is self-motivated because they enjoy the task, a parents’ work at trying to get them to complete a task becomes much easier.

For example, if a child shows an interest in reading, help them to research and find the genre of books that will most encourage this skill and love of learning. Trying to twist their arm to read something they are not interested in may lead to more stress and an avoidance of the task!

Love, always
Learning how to make good decisions, thinking about consequences and weighing up all the options, is a difficult and complex task that children need time and support to learn how to do. This involves areas of their brain that are slowly developing each year.

When a child struggles with something, it is imperative to acknowledge their attempts, and then help guide them with questions and suggestions to think about what they could do differently next time. Fixing it for them, or punishing them for a mistake, only serves to make that child avoid trying something new without taking initiative or responsibility for their actions.

If your child, for example, trips on their shoelace and breaks the cup they were carrying, cleaning it up for them or shouting at them will not help to resolve the issue or help teach the child the lesson they may need your help to learn. Instead, checking they are not hurt and guiding them to practise how to tie their shoelace tightly and properly next time, would be a step closer to minimising similar scenarios in the future.

Be a role model
Children learn most by what they observe, rather than what they hear. If a child can see that you as a parent are willing to make mistakes, to talk through your own decisions, and to verbalise statements of self-worth, this will also become a more easily learned behaviour for your child.

As a simple example: if a parent breaks a dish while washing up after dinner, instead of becoming cross or devaluing oneself (“How stupid am I for being so clumsy!”), a more helpful response would be to take responsibility while modelling calm ways to deal with a problem or mistake effectively. (“Oops, I made a mistake right now. Let me get a dustpan and clean it up before anyone gets hurt! Would you mind helping me out with that?”)

Self-esteem, self-worth and self-image are all simple words for complex psychological states that take time and effort to foster and strengthen. Parents need to remain patient and perseverant when sometimes addressing these big topics!



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