Ava, age 12, has stopped eating. Emma, age 13, often comes home from school crying. William, 14, refuses to go to school.
The parents of Ava, Emma and William have reason to be distraught as well as confused about how to deal with their children’s problems. The first step is to understand the deeper issues and the trigger situations affecting each child’s behavior.
At the root of Ava’s eating disorder, Emma’s crying and William’s school refusal lies a common problem: low self-esteem. Every child needs to have a healthy self-esteem in order to cope with the daily challenges of growing up. Boosting a child’s self-esteem is possible and essential.
Lurking below the surface of a child with low self-esteem is a situation that shattered the child’s self-image. Once you as a parent explore with your child the source of the anguish, you can then offer reassurance, comfort and advice to build your child’s confidence and self-image. Be on the lookout for such an opportunity or teachable moment.
Intent on being in the school play, Ava stopped eating after she didn’t get a part in the production. She developed the eating disorder as a way to assert control over another aspect of her life because she felt helpless in being rejected from the play. Ava’s mom sought to help her daughter by talking with her about disappointment over other people’s decisions. Ava’s mom emphasized the importance of accepting rejection as an unfortunate but necessary part of life, advising Ava to direct her attention to something positive that she could control. Once Ava expressed her anger and sadness about being left out, she resolved to start a new hobby that she could control. She also joined a Girl Scout troupe, where she was accepted by the group. During this time, Ava resumed eating healthily.
Emma’s crying started the day she overheard a group of girls at school planning a sleepover without inviting her, making her feel like an outcast. Acknowledging how normal it is to feel sad about being left out, Emma’s mother consoled her daughter by saying “It’s their loss.” Recounting her daughter’s many wonderful qualities, Emma’s mom also encouraged her daughter to befriend people who were more appreciative than the other girls at school. As occurred with Emma, even if a hurt child feels inconsolable at the moment, eventually a parent’s advice will sink in.
When William’s mom asked about what was happening at school to make him unwilling to go, he admitted that older boys were calling him names and marking up his locker. William’s mom immediately told her son that the older boys’ bullying behavior is unacceptable. Together, the mom and son explored what could be done to prevent the bullying, such as speaking up to the older boys and reporting them to school authorities. William’s mother reassured her son that he’s not to blame, being picked on hurts, and he deserves to be treated well. She also explained that kids bully when they feel insecure. She added that William shouldn’t feel weak or inferior. No one should.
Teachable Moments to Increase Your Child’s Confidence
Adolescence is a vulnerable time, when kids face challenges in personal development and social relationships. Here are some common teachable moments to build a child’s self-esteem.
- When your child is having difficulty concentrating on a task, advise your child to focus and finish the task at hand. Stay with your child during a daunting task like completing a cumbersome homework assignment. Without criticism, acknowledge the distraction, saying something like “That video game is a good thing to do after your finish homework.” Then redirect your child’s attention with a question like “What is the most interesting part of this assignment?” Be encouraging, perhaps saying “I know you can finish this even if it seems difficult.”
- When your child can’t make up his or her mind, encourage wise a decision. Discuss the particular challenge your child is facing and collectively consider the options for what can be done to amend the situation. What choice does your child think you would approve of and what choice would your child like to make? Talk about the consequences of each choice. Knowing the outcome of a decision while making a choice is crucial for confidence.
- When your child is jealous of a classmate or a camp friend, tame the green-eyed monster. Adolescents compare themselves to friends and often come up short. Turn envy into appreciation, asking “What do you like most about your friend?” Also allow your child to consider self-improvement, with a question like “How can you develop that quality you admire in yourself?” Encourage your child year-round to improve personal attributes admired in others, whether it’s striving to excel in writing during the academic year or becoming a more trusted bunk mate over the summer months.
- When your child is down in the dumps, give your child something to embrace with a smile. While reassuring your child that feeling blue occasionally is normal, always uncover the reason for sadness. Brainstorm ways to feel better and explore different solutions to problems. Remember, believing in a positive outcome is a mood-lifter.
- When your child doesn’t do what he or she promises, inspire perseverance. Because kids can say they will do something and then not follow through, explain that success in life requires keeping their word. Point out the rewards of sticking to commitments, whether that means gaining other people’s trust or gaining a privilege at home.
Five Tips to Enhance Your Child’s Sense of Self
- Be a good role model. Kids notice what you do and often copy behavior. Practice what you preach and present a positive example, such as taking a leadership role in a task that is important to you.
- Examine your own fears and feelings. Children’s worrisome behavior can trigger troublesome memories from your own youth or reflections of a current problem. Confront and deal with your issues to prevent them from affecting your parenting.
- Give as much attention as possible. Childhood behavior frequently stems from wanting attention. Rather than waiting for a problem to arise, notice what your child does well and offer lots of positive feedback.
- Check your self-esteem. If you feel good about who you are, you can react to your child’s behavior with a strong personal self-image. This allows you to motivate your child without being overly indulgent or punitive.
- Treat yourself. When your personal needs are satisfied, you are more likely to be kind and generous to your children, as well as to others.