Adults can instill confidence in children just by keeping their eyes and ears open - listening to the kind word, noticing the neat work, watching out for the good behavior, and acknowledging the effort.
Not so long ago I heard someone say “always remember to dig for gold, not for dirt”. What a simple idea! Yet, it so hard to live by. This thought resonated with me and brought back a rush of memories of instances when this value had not been upheld, leading to disastrous consequences.
It would not be inaccurate to state that over three-fourths of children and adolescents who come for counseling, struggle with issues of low self-esteem, and problems arising out of that, even if their presenting problem is different. Their self-talk is all about: “I am not good enough,” “I am not smart enough,” “I am not good looking enough,” “I didn’t do well in my test, so why should anyone be my friend?” “No one is talking to me,” “I can’t ask a question because the teacher may scold me and then the others will laugh at me”, “I am too scared to go up on stage – everyone will laugh at me” and so on and so forth.
Self-esteem reflects a person's overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself, as well as an attitude toward the self. Statements like these are manifestations of low self-esteem and it is important to understand that these children were not born this way. We, the parents and adults in their lives, have made them this way, by our casual, hurtful comments and needless judgments. In our well-meaning effort to spur them on, we sometimes end up bringing them to a grinding halt.
We need to remember to be extremely careful about what we say, and how we say it. We may very casually, without giving it a second thought, call our child stupid, dumb, slow or incapable. Sometimes even a loser. But do we really want him or her to grow up believing that he or she is stupid, dumb, slow, and incapable or a loser?
The parents of a primary school child came to me some time back seeking help for their young son. They were very concerned after a teacher had pointed out many ‘problems’ with the child during a recent parent-teacher meeting and had suggested that they meet the school counselor. In my interaction with them, they said they were helpless and did not know how to deal with their son. Their choice of words sent a shiver down my spine because in my vocabulary you only “deal” with a “problem”! And a child is not a “problem”. If you perceive your child to be a problem, then that attitude will reflect in everything that you do and say. And your child will soon start believing that he or she is indeed a “problem”.
Not surprisingly, when I asked these parents what they had observed as their child’s strengths, neither parent could come up with anything, even though I tried asking the question in many different ways, at different points in our session.
Now, to me that is the “problem” that we needed to “deal” with. Not the child.
It should come as no surprise then that many children grow up believing there is nothing unique and special about them, because these parents were not unique in their attitude and behavior. They were by no yardstick uncommon!
Making a child ‘visible’ in the eyes of parents, teachers, and other adults is very important. But to make them visible when they are being good and doing good, rather than when they are being bad and doing bad, can have a significant impact on the child’s mental make-up. This is a powerful tool available to every parent and adult in a child’s life, for free. Adults can instill confidence in children just by keeping their eyes and ears open - listening to the kind word, noticing the neat work, watching out for the good behavior, and acknowledging the effort.
So if this is not what you are used to doing, how do you start? An attempt in the right direction should involve making sure there is at least something good you have noticed, and acknowledged, in your child every day. And, if every day seems too daunting a task to begin with, start with every week.
You’ll be surprised when you realize how rarely you have been applauding your children for their effort. In fact some kids have probably never received appreciation from their parents, ever. Yet, this negligence goes unnoticed all the time. We are over-alert to the things that are wrong, but tend to take the things that are right for granted.
Remember to dig for gold. And, do it every day till it becomes a habit. And then learn to scrub the gold to make it shine even more, rather than just trying to brush off the dirt and “deal” with the mess thus created.
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.