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
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
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
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
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.
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