Self-esteem is a whole bundle of skills, choices, messages and activities that together represent a life well-lived. And as children grow up and create their days, there is a lot parents can do to make self-esteem a natural part of them.
Think of the four C’s — confidence, competency, chances and caring — said Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New
“Self-esteem emerges out of life experiences, out of the chances to develop competency and confidence in an atmosphere of caring,” said Elias, who is co-author of “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child,” (paperback edition, Three Rivers Press, $13.)
With parents so hard-pressed today to keep up with all their multiple responsibilities, it can seem difficult to focus on the intangible issues.
Yet, said Elias, parents actually do a lot of esteem-building. Sometimes in their eagerness to support their child’s confidence, however, they glide over the competence part. On that score, “there are small things you can do that make a big difference,” he said.
Take praise, for example. Instead of saying “you’re a good kid, you did a nice job,” Elias encourages parents to verbalize to the child exactly what he or she did well. “I like the way you helped your brother with his math homework.” Or, “it was so thoughtful of you to write a note about the school play to your grandparents.” As they hear specific praise day in and day out, children become secure in knowing how competent they are in many different areas. And by describing their children’s abilities out loud, parents too become better at recognizing what their kids do well.
It’s never too late to get started working on self-esteem, said Constance Smith Hendricks, associate professor at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing. As head of the South Carolina Health Connection Project, she works with adolescents from 11 to 15 years old and partners with community groups around the state to develop confidence-building activities.
Building self-esteem “is not something that happens immediately,” said Hendricks. “You meet people where they are. And then you empower them through knowledge and skills.”
For today’s kids, “it’s the era of interaction. You have to do things with them.” In teaching about consequences of risky behavior, for example, Hendricks works with the American Association for the Advancement of Science so kids can build a model of a lung to make visible the effects of smoking.
And what happens when kids don’t get the messages right away and slip into negative behaviors or poor self-image? That is when support networks step in, a personal cheering squad, she said, “to pick you up and dust you off.”
Sometimes, it feels like supporters have their work cut out for them. In a recent Internet survey, done in connection with a partnership that includes Women’s Health at Columbia University, Secret Anti-perspirant and Seventeen magazine, 2,000 teen-age girls were polled about their self-esteem. More than 7 percent said they had an eating disorder. Further, 46 percent were not satisfied with their bodies, 35 percent considered plastic surgery like breast augmentation or liposuction, and 78 percent said they frequently felt worried, anxious or upset.