I have been surprised at the number of children and teens that I meet who struggle with low self-esteem. Interestingly, they are not aware of it and neither are their parents. Most of the time, both parties claim poor behavior, difficulty in school, social problems or defiance as the major concerns. However, at its simplest form, the issues stem from self-esteem.
When I met with parents for the initial consultation in my office, I would ask them to describe the most pressing concerns and explain the child’s behaviors. I typically received one of a small handful of responses: withdrawn, acting out, moody, aggressive or apathetic. Although those seem to encompass a vast array of issues, it was interesting to find the common thread to be self-esteem. Let’s look at each one individually.
Withdrawn: Children who pull away from family and friends do so to protect themselves from pain. There can be any number of reasons that a kid would need to avoid their true feelings. However, when kids want to avert dealing with the pressing issues in their lives, it usually means that they don’t feel good about themselves. Basically, if you don’t have a good understanding of who you are (self-concept), it is very difficult to deal with challenges. So, when kids are in the middle of parents getting a divorce or have to move across the city or state away from friends, it is more challenging to face it and easier to hide from it.
Acting Out: Kids who act out behaviorally are trying to force their will upon the world, as a result of feeling a lack of control over themselves and their environment. When kids cannot accept themselves, they clearly cannot accept changes, surprises or the unexpected. So, when you tell your child “no”, and they disagree with your decision, they will show their disapproval in their behavior, because they do not know how to handle the internal conflict.
Moody: It is relatively normal for children to fluctuate drastically in their emotions from one minute to the next. This is due to living in the “here and now”, without separating situations in their minds. However, when a child seems out of sorts, whether excessively sad and moping or overly giddy and happy, it can indicate self-esteem problems. Basically, the smallest trigger can set off a major emotional avalanche, rooted in an inability to handle internal feelings. The more severe the reaction, positive or negative, the more likely the child is trying to make sense of who they are. The more grounded a child is in relation to their self-esteem (a healthy balance), the more they can weather the ups and downs of life.
Aggressive: Children who are aggressive in verbal or physical capacities are often facing major identity dilemmas. Let’s face it: When we don’t know who we are, we cannot trust ourselves to react the same way twice. We just willy-nilly respond to emotional stimuli, and that is scary. In order to keep control, kids will react aggressively so that they keep a measure of power over their circumstances. It is always easier to assume the role of the aggressor, which is strong and tough, than to admit that they do not know how to handle being sad, frustrated, scared or another vulnerable emotion.
Apathetic: This may be the most devastating of all the emotional responses to low self-esteem. In the course that I teach at USF, I ask my students to consider which is worse in a relationship: hatred or apathy. If you can’t decide, the answer is apathy. Hatred, while a strong, negative feeling, still indicates care and concern for the situation. Apathy, however, shows a lack of any feeling. When children reach the point of apathy, I call it the “White Towel” syndrome. They have given up. The good news is that apathy is reversible. Once kids begin to learn who they are and what they feel, they begin to care again.
So, how do you help cultivate a healthy sense of self-esteem in your kids? Read about seven helpful ways to Encourage Self-Esteem here, in a previous article. Above all, tell your kids that they are capable and able. Provide them with opportunities to succeed. Demonstrate healthy self-esteem about yourself. Encourage them to believe in themselves. And give them love and respect everyday.
To quote a great line from the movie Pretty Woman, “When people put you down, you start to believe it. The bad stuff is easier to believe”. Your child needs to hear encouragement from you as often as he hears criticism from someone else in order to develop a solid understanding of who he is!