The importance of self-esteem originated with the work of Nathaniel Branden in 1969. In his book, ‘The Psychology of self-esteem‘, he emphasised its importance in human psychology and claimed that the lack of it was related to emotions such as anxiety, depression or guilt. So began the self-esteem movement as it was seen as the element to fix or develop in order to avoid all the mental health problems. Sadly though, we have focussed so much on children’s self-esteem, we’ve not realised all the other problems we’ve created as a consequence.
What is self-esteem
Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth and how much we like ourselves. It is a perceived value and is usually based on how different we are from others and perhaps, how special we are.
Why is the focus on self-esteem a problem
While low self-esteem can be a problem, having self-esteem that is too high is also problematic. When we teach kids that they need to be better than others in order to be worthy, we also inadvertently teach them they need to put others down in order to feel good about themselves. An emphasis on raising self-esteem can result in narcissistic tendencies.
The self-esteem movement in the 80s led to parents and teachers showering children with unconditional praise and rewards while also shielding them from any criticism or consequences for fear of damaging their fragile self-esteem. Consequently, we have a generation of young adults who struggle with criticism, boundaries and failure.
Focussing on raising children’s self-esteem may result in ignoring, distorting or covering any shortcomings which then means children will be less self-aware.
Finally, given self-esteem is often dependent on personal success and failure, it will fluctuate constantly depending on the circumstances in a child’s life.
What is self-compassion
Self-compassion is the ability to notice when you are suffering, treat yourself with care and kindness and understand that suffering, failure or imperfection is part of the shared human experience (from Kirsten Neff, 2003).
How to teach kids self-compassion
Modelling: Like anything we teach kids, modelling it yourself is always the first step. If your child notices you being compassionate towards yourself when your failings come to front, they are more likely to learn to do the same.
Teach kindness: As part of developing self-compassion, it is important to be kind to oneself as opposed to being judgemental. When your child makes mistakes, acknowledge these imperfections and flaws with a sense of kindness instead of being judgemental about it. This does not necessarily involve condoning any wrongdoings but still being kind in the way you handle it.
It’s human: Teaching children that failure and imperfections are part of common humanity helps validate their experiences and normalises it. It will make them feel less alone.
Be mindful: Practice being mindful with your child every day. This does not have to be mindful breathing all the time but teaching them to be in the present moment without judgement and with an open mind no matter what they are doing. By practising mindfulness, kids can then learn to be mindful when they are suffering too.
Change critical talk: As parents, it’s important to be mindful how you talk to your kids. Refrain from being critical and change your kids’ critical self-talk. Ever watched The Biggest Loser? How many people really and truly feel motivated to lose weight with criticism? It’s a similar situation with critical talk in general.
For more information on self-compassion, make sure you check out Dr Kirstin Neff’s work on the topic.