Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Part I: Back To School: Helping Kids "Fit In" - Developing Self Esteem

Problems at school that have been pushed aside during the summer months once again begin to rear their ugly little heads as the kids go back to school. The carefree, low pressure days of summer make way to the routines, structure and the expectations of the new school year, not to mention all of those new people--peers and teachers-- that have to be met! Getting along with, let alone making friends with all the people involved in the school day requires the development of social skills and the knowledge of social rules that can seem overwhelming, yet they are things of which middle childhood (ages 6-12) children are very capable.

One mother asked for advice on helping her elementary school age daughter (lst grade) make and keep friends as this had been a problem for the little girl in Kindergarten.

When children are around their peers they begin right away to make social comparisons. They identify their personal strengths and weakness as they compare themselves to others. The self concept is formed based on these known (and perceived) weaknesses and strengths which in turn become the basis of self esteem.

Many parents make the mistake of burdening their child with qualities that are not based on reality or the evidence that the child understands and perceives as true in the world around them. One mother told her daughter constantly that "you are the smartest girl in the world". She wrote this on the daughter's mirror and left notes in her things for her to find. When the daughter began comparing herself to others she felt that there were others that were just as smart or even smarter. She became confused and when she told her mom that "Suzy" was smart also, her mother in a misguided attempt to build self esteem would tell her "But not like you. You are the smartest". Instead of acknowleging the qualities of others and her daughter in a healthy realistic way, she was creating a confusing fantasy world that resulted in extreme competiveness. When others in the real world did not subscribe to the "fact" that she was the smartest of them all, she became depressed and unhappy as well as mistrustful of her mother--the very person she needed to trust the most. Security for children comes when they can trust their parents to take care of them and acknowledge--(which is to accept) who they are with a warm, and nurturing attitude.

Judy Herr, an expert in childhood development, identifies five areas that children base their self worth upon:
  • Academic Competence
  • Athletic Competence
  • Physical Appearance
  • Behavior
  • Social Acceptance
...and they don't have to be "the best" in any one of them and certainly not all five! If they do happen to be the best when competing (contests, tests, games, etc., this is a wonderful bonus!)

Tips for Promoting Self Esteem:

  1. Do not compare children - by avoiding comparisons among children you will be helping children develop confidence in their own unique abilities and they will feel better about themselves.
  2. View accomplishments in the context of the child's ability and effort.
  3. Help children avoid feelings of helplessness -- help them to understand the concepts of "don't give up" and "try, try again".
  4. Encourage children to persist at difficult tasks.
  5. Help them believe that they can overcome failure - "I know you can do this--let's try again."
  6. Celebrate when the child succeeds.
  7. Provide them with feedback as to why they succeeded.

(adapted from Judy Herr, Working With Young Children.)

Another essential rule: avoid put downs or name calling of any kind in the family--this should be a given, yet it is amazing to me how much this does occur.

And possibly most important: Be a good role model--How is your self esteem?

Next time: Part II: Back to School - "Understanding Others and Making Friends"


  1. Thanks Laura, this was insightful and gave me things to ponder over. Celebrating the child and their uniqueness and recognizing and teaching hard work is important. Sometimes it's easy to start comparing your child to others as well and seeing they aren't the "smartest in the world" you begin to doubt yourself and your parenting. Thanks for the tips and I look forward to part 2!

  2. Great advice as usual!