Our child’s self esteem: When should we worry?

It's not always easy to assess a child's self esteem

Posted May 04, 2009

Recent challenges to the cult of talent and precociousness highlight the effectiveness of hard work and practice. Carol Dweck sees the key to success as a mindset in which challenges are relished, rather than avoided. Daniel Coyle describes neurological changes triggered by practice; the brain changes and acquires abilities as we work to develop skills. Of course, for generations, parents and teachers have emphasized hard work as opposed to natural talent. Parents encourage their children to aim high, and may try to boost their spirits, and sustain their efforts, by "talking them up". Many parents feel anxious when a child is self critical and pegs himself as "much less good" at something than his peers. Is this anxiety justified?

It is often difficult to gauge confidence in children because self-esteem is not simply high or low. In childhood, it undergoes daily shifts in shape and intensity, varying with the familiarity of the setting, the task at hand, the attitudes of the people around.
Until about 10, children's daily lives are chock-a-block with discoveries about their abilities, their powers and limitations. They feel confident in one situation, but not in another. They are in control when the school bell rings, but lose confidence when someone is late to pick them up at the school gate. Adults usually only suffer such swings at times of social upheaval.

There is no sure method of assessing self-esteem, or measuring the extent to which it is lacking. In the abstract, a child may declare herself confident, say, in maths, but freeze when the teacher invites her to work on a new type of question. Some children boast of being the next David Beckham, yet they don't feel sufficiently confident to join in a game. Dreams aren't any use, unless they give day-to-day support.
If asked directly whether they think they can do something, or whether they "like themselves", children may speak with a confidence that is not really felt: they learn quickly that they shouldn't be down on themselves.

So how can parents judge a child's self-esteem? Some of the danger signals are obvious enough: a child who constantly makes derogatory comments about herself, expresses a wish to die, or speaks pessimistically about her future, is voicing despair over her own self-image. But there are less obvious danger signals too, and these often involve lack of energy or interest in the world. A child with high self-esteem is curious, eager to know, and confident of her ability to understand. One who gives away little personal information may just be reserved - but may feel she has nothing of interest to say. A child who cries frequently when faced with new or difficult tasks is likely to anticipate her own failure and be anxious about her own abilities. One who acts impulsively, or behaves inconsistently, may believe she has no control over the outcome of her actions. Nothing is more important in building self-esteem than a sense of being effective; nothing tears it down as much as a sense of powerlessness. Self-esteem is important because without it, children feel there is not point in doing the hard work that creates skills and ability.

Parents can help. First, they can listen, key into what the child says, and accept her own statements about how she feels and what she thinks. They can help her find (acceptable) ways of expressing her emotions, whether of joy or sadness. Acceptance of her own emotions, and awareness of her parents' genuine wish to understand are important foundations of self-esteem. Secondly, parents can ease anxiety about performance by showing the child that she does have power to extend her skills and knowledge. The important message is that one's abilities and behaviour can improve with effort. If a child does badly in an exam, what reasons does she give? Does she say, "I'm stupid/ I'm no good at this?" or does she say, "I didn't prepare enough/ pace myself"? The first replies show a belief in failure as permanent and inevitable. The second show that she sees some way of improving her performance.

It is also wise to be on the lookout for what she says when she does well. If she says, "It was easy/ I was lucky", then even experience of success does not build confidence because she does not link it to her own efforts. Children with high self-esteem do not necessarily experience fewer failures than those with low self-esteem, but unlike the latter, they see how they can improve. Third, parents can foster confidence by moderating their own anxiety about performance. The intense involvement parents often have with a child's "success" can lead to anger and frustration at "failure" to shine. Sometimes, too, a parent's own unhappiness or stress blocks interest in a child's complex inner world. Being ignored can make a child feel she has nothing to offer.
While self-esteem can be bolstered in a number of ways - by friends, siblings, teachers, even pets - parents are usually the quickest to respond to need, and so are the first to receive the instructions of pundits. But parents don't have to have perfect control of their own lives to help their children maintain self-esteem. Even if their own self-esteem suffers in the ups and downs of adult life, they retain the capacity to support a child's, for self-esteem involves learning how to survive in the midst of problems.

The Confident Child by Terri Apter is a winner of the Delta Kappa Gamma International Educator's Award