Developing Self-Worth in Your Child

© 1996, Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.

The following article defines self-worth and gives practical suggestions on how to foster feelings of self-esteem in children.

  1. Home Atmosphere.
  2. Expectations.
  3. Respect.
  4. Family Democracy.
  5. Communication.
  6. Feeling-Expression.
  7. Labels and Judgments.
  8. Active Listening.
  9. Psychological Presence.

As we grow, most of us strive to develop an esteemed sense of self, a persona that allows us to function independently, yet feel part of our world. The development of such an identity leaves us the experience of feeling important, competent, valued, and with a secure sense of belonging. Our need for this state is like an inner-compass that directs us throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, due to early family experiences, we don't always develop a positive self-image. Whether we identify ourselves as worthwhile or worthless has a profound bearing on the overall direction our lives will take. Our judgment about ourselves influences the kind of friends we make, our choice of careers, the person we seek to marry, and the way we feel and behave toward others. It influences our capacity for leadership, our honesty, and our potential for success. In short, our feeling of personal worth, or lack of it, is a fundamental aspect of our identity and plays a principal role in the construction of our lives.

But What Is Self-Worth?

Some people believe our worth comes from our behavior, that we are what we do. Unfortunately, with this concept any poor performance could label us inadequate, instill a sense of worthlessness, and restrict or even eliminate our potential for approvable actions. As such, all of life's endeavors would carry the paralyzing possibility of leaving us rejected, worthless, and hopeless.

There is another way to judge ourselves, however, that does not leave us so easily shattered. Basically, in order to develop a stable and enduring sense of self-worth, we must know that our mere existence makes us worthwhile. We need to understand that our value is intrinsic and not contingent upon acceptable performances. We need to recognize that our behavior is a matter of choice and that our capacity to choose makes us more than our behavior.

Now it is true, of course, that socially acceptable conduct is valuable, and much of the approval we receive from others rests upon our penchant for such activity. This kind of value, however, is based only on the social usefulness of our acts and, unfortunately, tends to foster resentment in us over time. Secure feelings of self-worth, on the other hand, spring more from sustained experiences of unconditional acceptance, from love that transcends our performances, allowing us, in turn, to develop the capacity for an enduring self-acceptance. Because of the importance of this phenomenon, therefore, it is also true that our ability to unconditionally accept others makes us important to those whose lives we touch. Genuine self-acceptance is the product of a faith in the durability of our intrinsic value, and of an awareness that our existence means we are significant to ourselves and potentially so to others.

It cannot be over stressed that a secure and stable sense of worth has a profound impact on the development of our lives. We, as parents, influence the development of esteem in our children. Thus, to insure its proper formation in their lives we best understand its components.

Fostering Self-Worth

Of the many family ingredients potentially associated with self-worth, scientists have discovered that parental attitudes and beliefs about family life are key elements. Also important is the way family members communicate these beliefs, and the home atmosphere this generates. The ideas that follow focus on these attitudes and refer specifically to the development of good family relationships. They can be utilized in conjunction with most of the modern parenting procedures currently taught.

Before we begin, however, it is well to remember that even the best adult-child relationships sometimes run afoul. Out of anger or frustration, most of us occasionally transmit messages that are potentially destructive to our children's self-esteem. We need not be alarmed when this happens, however, as long as this is the exception, and most of the messages transmitted are loving or constructive. In fact, an occasional negative comment can help protect a child's positive image from the potentially erosive forces he (or she) may encounter in life. This would be something like an inoculation process whereby a little hurt strengthens us against greater harm. For example, in a household where much love and acceptance is communicated, an occasional hostile comment can be taken in stride.

In such a household the child might say to him or herself, "I know I'm lovable even though Dad said I was a no-good brat today. I guess he was just angry because I got peanut butter all over his new suit."

It is also important to know that parents are not the only ones that contribute to building self-acceptance in children. All persons viewed by children as important or valuable, such as relatives, family friends, policemen, clergymen, etc., have an impact on the development of self-esteem. Teachers also fit this category, as every good educator knows. Therefore, teachers have a responsibility toward their students that goes well beyond the teaching of academic subjects. Teachers' attitudes of care and acceptance in the classroom can leave an indelible imprint on their students' sense of self.

Children also view peer groups as important.  Despite all the teasing and bullying that goes on in these groups, when children feel primarily accepted by their group it has a strong and positive influence on their feelings about themselves.

However, there is little we as parents can do in these areas. Instead, we need to know how self-esteem is fostered in our home.

Home Atmosphere.

Basically, our goal is to help our children recognize that their value to us is intrinsic and not based on their behavior. If we are successful, they will recognize that our acceptance of them is not contingent upon our acceptance of their behavior. i.e., we are happy for them and proud of them if they get an “A” in school or hit a homerun, but we love them anyway.  Conversely, rejection of their behavior does not mean rejection of them. This important assumption must underlie parental attitudes and clearly manifest itself at home. When parents adopt this attitude it influences their children to adopt a similar attitude toward themselves.

Expectations.

Children also tend to adopt their parents standards. When standards or expectations are set too high, children tend to experience frequent and repeated failure. Thus, they are unable to develop a feeling of competence and mastery. This experience can have an erosive effect on their capacity for independent behavior and, consequently, on the development of a positive and stable identity. Also, when parental expectations are set too low, it may transmit the message that their children are inadequate. Such children might think, “My parents don’t expect much from me because I’m not very good.”  When children act as though they are less adequate than they really are, it tends to reinforce this belief, undermines their efforts to maximize their potential, and tends to influence the development of identities that are lacking in esteem.

However, as many parents know, it is not easy to develop expectations that are realistic. Even professionals working with children all the time make errors. Nevertheless, to help develop self-acceptance it is important to base your expectations on a realistic assessment of your child's capabilities, and not on cultural and social pressures for achievement or personal desires for success.

Respect.

Parents that are most effective in raising responsible and self-accepting children are those that treat their children with respect. They think of their children as people and treat them the way they themselves would like to be treated. Their family interactions clearly manifest an awareness of their children's desire for mastery, competency, and autonomy. They also relate to their children as separate and unique individuals, and show respect for their feelings, attitudes, judgments, and ideas.

Children that experience this kind of respect from their parents tend to develop both self-respect and respect for authority. Also, the feeling of respect and acceptance in the family tends to spread to the larger culture. Thus, they are more willing to participate in society and are less attracted to deviant, rebellious or anti-establishment sub-groups. The importance of showing respect to your child cannot be overstated.

Family Democracy.

Many parents are able to foster worthwhile feelings by including their children in family discussions. Here, family sessions are often held once a week and are usually open to all subjects. In this manner children are provided with an opportunity to clear the air about complaints they might have, to discuss and resolve personal problems, to learn about life and themselves, and to be honestly involved in the important family decisions that directly affect their lives. Democratic family discussions create an atmosphere of love and care at home, and clearly communicate feelings of respect.

However, as many parents know, it is not always prudent, and sometimes not even possible to follow the advice or suggestions of their children. To adhere to some of their wishes could seriously endanger their lives. Therefore, purely democratic discussions are not always feasible. Nevertheless, it is important that these discussions be as democratic as possible, and not merely benevolent parental dictatorships.

In order to preserve the home atmosphere of democracy and mutual respect, all impractical suggestions could be explored with an eye toward discerning their negative and positive consequences. Their suggestions could then be considered as possible, but secondary options, while other suggestions are explored. Although it is not necessary for parents to abandon their teaching role in the family, it is helpful when they themselves are open to learning.

Communication.

All communication takes place on two broad levels, verbal and nonverbal. Clear and meaningful communication on both of these levels contributes powerfully to the home atmosphere. However, because of its significance to the family and in family relations it will be considered in the following sub-categories.

Feeling-Expression.

When we are honest about our feelings there is usually automatic agreement between these verbal and nonverbal communication levels, i.e., the feelings our body communicates matches the feelings we are stating verbally. Also, the genuineness of our feelings, as communicated when these two levels are in agreement, leads to the development of trust, confidence and respect in the family. These are all factors that foster a sense of self-worth. Conversely, a chronic experience of verbal and nonverbal incongruity in the family can lead to severe emotional problems. For example, when a mother verbally tells her son that she loves him, but nonverbally, through facial expression, body posture, tone of voice, etc., communicates rejection, her son will tend to feel unsure of her love. Also, he might feel angry in response to her nonverbal rejection. Yet, because feelings generated by nonverbal communication are often difficult to pinpoint or justify, he might also feel frustrated, guilty, and foolish. Frequent experiences of this kind could easily leave him confused and self-condemning.

The honest sharing of feelings is also important in other ways. The expression of genuine feelings, accurately proportionate to their existence, can lead to the clarification and correction of any misunderstandings that may arise among family members. Also, feeling-expression in the family can help family members become aware of the effect their behavior has on others. When accurately and honestly shared in a loving and supportive atmosphere, feeling-expression helps develop a more realistic sense of identity and a capacity for understanding and empathy. In turn, the development of a capacity to understand and empathize with others can lead to increased esteem building experiences such as greater peer acceptance.

In addition, and very importantly, when parents share their feelings with their children, their children are led to believe that it is okay to have such feelings. For example, when children know that their parents, which they love and respect, sometimes experience the same “bad” feelings they have, i.e., fear, hatred, etc. children tend to develop more confidence and become more self-accepting.  Thus, children come to realize that self-worth is not contingent upon having "good" or acceptable feelings exclusively.

Labels and Judgments.

To help communicate the attitude that your child is worthwhile because he/she exists, focus your reactions to his/her behavior on the behavior and not on your child as a whole. Avoid judging or labeling your child for the behavior he/she performs. This applies to both good and bad behaviors. Personal worth or value must never be open to question. For example, if your child does something you appreciate, try to avoid labeling him/her as good. Instead, indicate that you appreciate what was done, or that it, the behavior, was good. In this manner he/she is less likely to be confused by thinking that you equate him/her with the behavior. Your child can certainly develop pride in his/her behavior this way. At other times, telling your child that he/she is good, and that you love him/her will not be confusing, and can help to secure feelings of intrinsic self-worth.

Active Listening.

When children know that their feelings are being understood and accepted by their parents, they tend to feel important and loved. In fact, sometimes finding a solution to your children’s problems is actually less desirable to them then just their knowing that they are being heard. This esteem-building experience can be fostered through a process known as active listening.

Active listening is a communication process often used by counselors and psychotherapists. It consists of simply reflecting or feeding back to the other person the feeling component of the person's statements. It does not consist of parrot-like restatements of the facts, but rather a rewording that genuinely indicates the person's feelings are being heard and accepted. Parents can utilize this process by reflecting back the feelings they think their children are communicating. For example, if a boy tells his father that he doesn't feel like going back to school, his father might say, "I guess your feeling pretty down about failing that English exam."  (If this is true of course.)  This statement by the father is important in several ways. It provides support for his son, it indicates an acceptance of his son's feelings, it helps clarify his son's thinking, it creates an atmosphere of psychological intimacy, and it opens the door for more meaningful communication. It is sometimes amazing, but when children experience this kind of genuine acceptance they often rapidly find solutions to problems that they had previously found unsolvable. This seems to be because solving problems is often more the product of one's attitude and feelings about one's self then it is the result of an ability to collect and assess information.

Psychological Presence.

Whenever I talk to a person that seems preoccupied or more interested in something else, I tend to feel slightly disconcerted. At these times I also feel somewhat unimportant, frustrated, angry and even guilty that I might be intruding. Many other people have had similar feelings when conversing with individuals that appear not to be listening. Children are very prone to such feelings, especially when they are not receiving their parents', full attention. Children need to know that their parents enjoy them, value them, and that they are worth their parents' time. Thus, when parents try to not be distracted by other matters as they talk to their children, that is when they fully attend to their children and appear to find such attendance either enjoyable or important, they help forge positive and enduring feelings of worth and self-acceptance in their children.

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to give our children our undivided attention, especially when we are troubled by other events, preoccupied with other matters, or busy with other duties. Therefore, to develop a secure sense of personal worth, our children must learn that they are worthwhile even when they share our time with other people or events. We can help our children maintain their sense of value by explaining when we are preoccupied or why we must attend to other duties. Although we are often rushed in our lives and have many demands pressing on us, if we take a little time now to assure our children we love them, we save time later by reducing their demands for our attention.

As previously mentioned, it is not likely that everybody adheres to all these suggestions all the time. And it is not likely you and I will either. It is only important that our interactions be mostly constructive. In addition, although it is important to be aware of the factors that influence self-esteem, it is also valuable to know that these influences are more effective when applied in a manner that is authentic and, when appropriate, with relaxed, good humor.

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