Parents spend a great deal of time worrying about being consistent (“Should I always enforce family rules? Should I give in after I’ve said no?”), but there’s really only one thing you have to be absolutely consistent about, letting your child know he’s loved, valued, and important. A child who grows up hearing that message will develop a healthy self-image.
Parents can’t compromise when it comes to giving their child feedback about his basic nature and worth. A child needs to hear again and again that his parents accept him as he is, with his strengths and weaknesses, personality, interests, and appearance. Parents should encourage their child to feel good about himself and his capabilities.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show anger and disappointment when your child misbehaves. You have to set limits and tell your child what you expect. In fact, when you do set limits, you let him know you care a great deal about him and the way he acts.
However, there’s a big difference between expressing disapproval of misbehavior and expressing general disapproval of a child. For whatever reasons, some parents have a hard time accepting their child. They may have unrealistically high expectations and, as a result, constantly feel that he’s failing. They themselves may have received negative messages as children and may now unconsciously treat their child as they were treated.
Some parents appear to favor one of their children over another. Although it may be easy to say, “I wish you were more like your brother,” or “I wish you liked science as much as your sister does,” parents should recognize the harm such statements cause. Rather than motivate a child to do better, these comparisons, with their implied put-downs, make him feel badly about himself and angry. He may only be motivated to get back at the sibling who seems to enjoy more parental approval.
To see how important feedback is to self-image, consider the way you were treated as a child. If your parents valued you as a lovable, worthwhile person, you probably entered adulthood feeling good about yourself. If you received negative messages, you’ve probably struggled at times with a poor self-image.
What your child needs from you is acceptance, praise, and compliments on his strengths. If he never seems to please you, reconsider your expectations. They may be too high, or your parenting style may be too demanding and high-pressured. You may find that, by being more realistic, you’re better able to accept your child as he is and give consistent, positive messages.
As you think about your child’s self-image, you may be worried if he’s shy. It’s a common belief that a shy child has a negative self-image, but that’s often not the case. Many children who are reserved by nature are as confident as their more outgoing peers. One teacher told a parent, “Your daughter may be quiet, but she’s certainly confident when it comes to doing her work and making friends.” Let your shy child know that you love him as much as you love his more extroverted siblings, and that he has as much to offer. As a result, he’ll develop a healthy self-image.
A child with low self-esteem will exhibit a number of symptoms. He might struggle with friends, compete excessively with peers and siblings, misbehave, and not perform up to his ability in school.
If you’re concerned about your child’s self-image or have questions about the impact your attitudes have on him, talk to a parenting coach or counselor. It’s much easier to resolve a child’s negative feelings when he’s young than it is to wait until he’s older.