Helping kids learn to cope with anxiety is my specialty, so it makes sense that stress and anxiety are the most common identified problems when we begin treatment. More often than not, however, I find that low self-esteem plays a huge role in stress and anxiety.
One of the most difficult parts of my job is listening to kids outline the reasons they feel worthless. I’m the worst one on my team. I fail every math test. I can’t read as fast as my friends. I always get picked last. I never have anywhere to sit at lunch. Kids encounter any number of micro-stressors each day and, although child-sized stressors might seem insignificant to parents, those stressors can and do alter how children feel about themselves.
Self-esteem, commonly defined as confidence in one’s own worth or abilities, is complicated at best. Kids naturally experience peaks and valleys in their self-esteem as they grow, and there is no “best” way to develop self-esteem. It’s critical to help kids work on self-esteem, though, because this feeling of confidence will help them work through difficult peer interactions, show resilience in the face of adversity and step outside of their comfort zones to try new things.
When kids have confidence in their abilities, they are better able to cope with stress, anxiety and other negative emotions as they grow.
The problem, of course, is that kids experience both self-esteem busters and boosters on a daily basis. It’s a lot to process and manage, and some kids don’t have the skills to work through the busters that drag them down.
The problem with living in a success-driven world is that kids learn to evaluate themselves based on the final product.
The good news is that kids can learn to replace busters with boosters. In time, they will internalize a positive sense of self and learn to focus on their strengths. Be aware of these three self-esteem busters and help your child find boosters to restore a sense of confidence:
1. Should have, could have, would have
Buster: Kids exist in a near constant state of overcorrection. In school, they see the mistakes on the page corrected in red pen. At home, they hear what they could have done to avoid a sibling feud or what they should have done to prepare for the spelling test. Kids are often bombarded with “could haves,” “should haves” and “would haves.”
While kids certainly do learn from their mistakes, they also internalize negative input and develop negative core beliefs over time. Kids need balance. They need the ability to find their own mistakes and figure out their own solutions without a hovering adult micromanaging their every move.
Booster: Replace pesky “should haves,” “could haves” and “would haves” with “I will,” “I can” and “I did.” Yes, we all make mistakes. When we have time to sit with our missteps, we think about alternatives. Instead of getting stuck on what we should have done for a better outcome, it’s better to think about what we did well and what we can do better the next time.
2. Negative self-talk
Buster: When kids run low on self-esteem, they tend to engage in negative self-talk. Their inner dialogue is saturated with what they perceive as their weaknesses and failures. I’m terrible at math. I have no friends. My teacher doesn’t like me. Parents are always surprised when kids share these feelings in therapy, but the truth is that many kids engage in negative self-talk when they’re feeling low.
As strange as that might sound ... embracing the concept of failure in your home actually helps kids learn to step away from the need for perfection.
Booster: The best way to counteract negative self-talk is to replace it with positive self-talk. I like to have kids make a list of the negative commentary running through their minds and come up with one positive counterstatement for each negative thought. If a child states that he is terrible at soccer, for example, a good positive counterstatement is, “I’m learning to play and I enjoy making new friends on the field.” The problem with living in a success-driven world is that kids learn to evaluate themselves based on the final product. When we shift the focus and teach them to make positive statements about their strengths and efforts, they become more resilient.
3. The pursuit of perfection
Buster: Tons of kids get stuck in the useless pursuit of perfection. They want perfect scores on their tests. They want to create perfect artwork. They want to score the perfect goal. Kids today are growing up in a hyper-competitive world. Kids buy into it. Parents buy into it. Coaches buy into it. When kids are constantly told to win (or are rewarded for winning), it makes sense that perfection becomes the new normal. There’s only one small problem: Perfection doesn’t actually exist. We all make mistakes and we all experience failure. Perfection chasers are running after a goal that simply doesn’t exist.
Booster: Embrace failure. As strange as that might sound (can a negative really function as a booster?), embracing the concept of failure in your home actually helps kids learn to step away from the need for perfection. Talk about your own failures. Show your kids how you overcome adversity or work through difficult tasks. Then create a family strengths board together. Everyone is good at something—everyone has a role to play. Create a poster listing all of the strengths each family member brings to the table. Seeing those strengths listed together and displayed on the wall can be a very powerful experience for children and their parents. It’s a great lesson in the power of working together to help the whole.
Self-esteem is a work in progress for most kids. When families slow down and focus on helping kids build their sense of self, kids are better prepared to cope with the ups and downs that naturally occur as they grow.