What is self-esteem?
# Self-esteem is liking yourself. It is not conceit or boastfulness, but believing in yourself and what you do.
# Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself as a person and knowing that there are things that you can do well – in other words, it is about being and about doing.
# Part of self-esteem is feeling that you have a place in the world where you belong – that you are part of a family where you matter. It is knowing about your roots and having confidence in your future. This can be a problem for children who have come from other countries and lost touch with their ‘roots’. It can also be a problem for children who have been part of a family break-up if they are split off from part of their family and its history.
# Self-esteem is about what matters to you. If you want to be good at sport but everyone tells you that you are good at art, it will not help your self-esteem very much. If you get encouragement and help in something you want to do, and you succeed, your self-esteem will grow.
How self-esteem is developed
# Very young babies don't have a sense of themselves as being separate human beings so they don't really have self-esteem as such. They gradually learn that they are loved and lovable because people care for them gently, look after them when they cry and smile at them consistently. When this happens it says to the baby: ‘You matter in the world’.
# As infants grow to become toddlers, they still don't have a complete understanding about themselves. For example, if a one-year-old is standing on the end of a rope that she is trying to pull, she may not move her feet off the rope. This is because she doesn't yet realise that both the feet and the hands belong to her. One-year-olds still don't understand that all of their body and mind belong to them. Every time they learn a new skill they add to their sense of being able to do things and learning who they are.
# When they say 'No' they are really saying: ‘I am learning that I am a separate person and this is very exciting and important for me. I can practise this by saying “No” even if I do want the ice-cream that you are giving me’.
# Toddlers learn about themselves by learning what they look like, what they can do and where they belong. They find it very difficult to share because they are just learning who they are and what is theirs.
# Toddlers see themselves through their parents' eyes. If their parents see them as special and lovable and show them and tell them this often, they will develop self-esteem. If they keep getting messages that they are not lovable or a nuisance they will not so easily develop self-esteem.
# By age three or so children have learned that their bodies and minds are their own. They can manage time away from their parents or main caregivers because they have an inner sense of feeling safe. They still learn their self-esteem in fairly physical ways, by comparing themselves with others, e.g. who is the tallest, who is the fastest.
Primary school age children
Self-esteem tends to fall in many children when they start school and have to cope in a strange new situation with lots of other new children and new rules to learn. Self-esteem in the primary school years is about how well children manage the learning tasks of the school, how they do at sport, how they look and how they can make friends with other children. Stresses at home, such as parents fighting with each other, can affect children's self-esteem. So can problems at school, such as having trouble with schoolwork, being bullied or not having friends.
What parents can do
Most parents will worry about their child's self-esteem at some time. Here are some things you can do to help nurture your child's self-esteem.
# Tell your child often that you love her and let her see that you are glad she is who she is.
# Show your child that you love her by spending time with her, listening to her point of view, and being willing to help her achieve her goals, e.g. drive her to sport and watch when she plays.
# Support her schoolwork – take an interest without taking over. Support school working bees or volunteer at the tuck shop if you can.
# Encourage friendships, make her friends welcome and get to know them.
# Provide help with schoolwork if she needs extra support but don't always focus on what she is not good at – children need to practise what they are good at to feel successful.
# Talk with the teacher. A good relationship between school and home is very important.
# Help your child to explore any hobbies that she is interested in.
# Help your child feel that she is needed in your family. Keeping in mind your child's age, ask and expect some help with the family chores, such as feeding pets, setting the table (tasks that contribute to the family, not just cleaning up her own mess).
# Let your child assist you with something, e.g. teenagers may be better than you at making the video or DVD work.
# When you play games with your primary school age child make sure that she has opportunities to win. Children who occasionally win, find it easier to be good losers.
# Involve them in the wider family; help them to know about their relatives, your family and its history.
# Keep special mementoes of their successes and important milestones.
# Keep little family rituals, e.g. a story at bedtime, a special goodbye kiss or other ways of doing things that are special to your family.
# Celebrate achievements and successes.
# Don't solve all problems for your child. Help her learn problem-solving skills and learn to feel that she can manage many things for herself. Show her that you have faith in her.
# If children have had a lot of changes, such as coming from another country, parents separating, or even moving house a lot, try and keep them in touch with their roots as much as you can. Keep a diary with pictures of where they have been. Try to keep them in touch with both sides of the family if possible. Let them know what you can about their family history. Adopted children can have two sets of roots.
Messages that damage children's self-esteem
# Ignoring them and not taking an interest in them.
# Messages that say you do not like the child, e.g., ‘I love you but I don't like you’.
# ‘You are ... ’ messages that say something bad about them as people, e.g., ‘You are lazy, untidy, naughty, a nuisance, a bully, shy, a sook ... ’
# Comparing them with others, especially their brothers and sisters.
# Giving messages that life would be better without them, e.g., ‘If it weren't for the children we could have a good holiday' or ‘I wish you hadn't been born’.
# Threatening to leave them if they do not do as you wish.
# Frowning or sighing when they want to talk to you or ask you for something.
Special tips for parents
# It is important to look after your own self-esteem too. It is part of good parenting to let your children see that you feel good about yourself.
# Take time out for yourself regularly. Do some things you really enjoy or feel proud of. For example take a bubble bath, join a team, read a book, go for a walk or a run, go to a movie, learn something new.
# Spend some time with friends who support you and help you to feel good.
# If you have a partner make sure that you keep regular time to be together.
# Self-esteem is very important for everyone.
# Young children learn self-esteem through what they can do and through what their parents think of them.
# ‘Put down’ messages really damage self-esteem.
# ‘Doing’ messages, such as giving time, hugs and smiles, are very important in building self-esteem.
# Self-esteem is learned and can be changed.
# Take care of your own self-esteem as well.
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