Can you help improve your child's concept of self?

Dr Garima Srivastava

Self-concept in simple terms is one's knowledge about oneself. Self-concept and self-esteem are two psychological terms that are commonly used interchangeably, but in fact there is a difference between the meanings of the terms. Self-esteem, rather than being something that you know about yourself, is your general attitude toward yourself. Self-esteem refers to the extent to which we like, accept, or approve of ourselves, or how much we value ourselves. Self-esteem always involves a degree of evaluation and we may have either a positive or negative view of ourselves. This can vary depending on the situation and what has been going on lately, and any feedback you have gotten recently from your environment and the people around you. The process of acquiring a positive self-concept begins at birth, when the parents and other caregivers begin giving their children verbal and non-verbal feedback on their behavior. Apart from them, other persons in their environment and community also contribute to their self-concept.

As a parent, you have many opportunities to make a positive impact on your child’s self-concept. Your non-judgmental attitude and unconditional acceptance towards your child is essential. This will help them feel accepted for the people that they are, rather than for their behavior, appearance or skills.

Here are some ways in which you can aid the development of a positive self-concept in your child:

Feedback: Most parents give feedback to their children for various things that they do or say, and for how they behave, but most of the time the feedback is negative rather than positive, and includes a lot of “checks” and “corrections”. As a parent you may probably be asking, “How can I make corrections constructively?” Since each child is unique and already has a self-concept in the process of development, you cannot guarantee how a child will accept correction. According to recommendations by experts, all feedback must include at least 75 percent positive comments as you make a correction to keep things in balance. A division of 50/50 positive comments to criticism doesn’t work. Research with children has indicated that they may feel unworthy unless the parents use a 75/25 balance.

For example, when giving your child feedback on his holiday homework a constructive feedback [75/25] balance could be as follows: “You have done an excellent job on this holiday homework record book. Your handwriting is neat, you have reported all of your daily routine, and your story follows the guidelines. However, you did not include the details of your vacation. It may be a great idea to also write about that so that your record book is complete and it looks even better when your teacher reads it.”

Expressing acceptance & non-judgemental attitude: While interacting with your child in various situations, you can increase their sense of self-confidence and self-worth by demonstrating neutral reactions to even extreme behaviors. For example, when the child shares an experience, feeling, or a thought, the parent accepts it as the true expression of that person at that moment. For instance, if a child says they could not clear an entrance exam that they were preparing for, don’t attack them by saying, “that is because you did not work hard enough,” or by saying, “I knew you would not be able to clear this exam.” Instead you could give a positive response by saying, “It is okay to fail sometimes, what is more important is that you tried your best,” or “I can understand your disappointment but remember you always have a second chance to try again.”

For example, if a child says they could not reach home in time because they missed the bus, don’t distrust them by saying “You’re lying. That’s not true—you must be with your friends. You just forgot to check the time.” Instead, set a positive example by not judging him and saying “Okay, hope you did not have a problem, next time be more careful to not miss your school bus so you can be home safely and on time.”

Active listening: As a parent it is important to not only give your children a chance to speak but it is also important to listen to them attentively and acknowledge what they are saying. You should speak to your children as you would speak to an adult and listen to them as you would an adult. Not merely hearing but actively listening to your child (which involves non-verbal body language, for example eye contact, nodding your head, etc.) and acknowledging what they are saying helps facilitate a sense of self-respect and self-confidence in them that enhances the level of self-concept.

Dr Garima Srivastava is a Delhi-based clinical psychologist with a PhD from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

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