Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Developing self-esteem in children

In our department of psychiatry, the scenario has almost become cliche.

A dynamic and successful parent(s), (sometimes one of the physicians at our own Clinic) will come to our office with their adolescent. The complaint is that in spite of the parents' providing every opportunity and encouragement for the child to flourish – and despite the fact that the parents have been assured that the child’s intelligence is average or above, the child flounders. The child seems to have little ambition. Often the parents seem invested in having us agree that the child has a diagnosable mental condition (most often depression or ADHD) that the parent hopes can be treated with medication and which will then put the child on the parent’s hoped for success trajectory. Usually, we are told by the parents that they "know" the child inexplicably suffers from low self esteem even though the parents have taken every opportunity to praise their children.

Obviously, frequent praise, economic advantage, native intelligence or talent are not reliable predictors of self esteem, confidence, competence or self motivation (even though we may have been lead to believe that by decades of feel-good, warm-fuzzy Pied Piper’s of self esteem). What then is the way to promote confidence, healthy self-esteem and creative expression that will lead to a productive and meaningful life?

A growing body of research in the last 20 years is leading us to understand that probably the single most important thing we can do for our children is to provide them with age-appropriate challenges and responsibilities. When a child shares in family chores, it is a real demonstration that they are a valued and needed member of the family and that the parents are confident that they are competent to do the assigned chores. The key, of course, is age-appropriate. At ages 5 – 7, children can help clear the dinner table; they can basically clean up their own room, put away their toys and participate in minor yard work. At ages 8 – 10, children can help with the family laundry, help prepare meals and share in the general housekeeping routine. And it should be understood that children are required to do their homework.

All of these tasks (and more) convey a powerful non-verbal message that you believe in your child’s ability, intelligence and judgment. It’s important that children should be rewarded for their efforts just as adults; we expect to be compensated for our efforts and skills. It has unfortunately become nearly endemic that children who are indulged and rewarded just for opening their eyes in the morning become self-entitled, dependent, surly and antisocial adolescents.