by Renee Mill, Clinical Psychologist
Originally published in Healthy Options, march 2009
Most modern parents believe in the value of building self-esteem. However, my experience is that parents tend to focus on praise and have forgotten about other essential building blocks such as reassuring their child that they love him/her. It sounds so obvious I know, but parents today are so busy that they often forget the basics.
Ask yourself - when did you last look your child in the eye and sincerely say a heartfelt "I love you"? Over and over I have heard from adults that they wished that their mother or father had told them, in words, what they felt. Many adults confess that while they knew at some level their parents loved them, they would have appreciated it being spelled out. Do you sometimes take for granted that your child must know you love her because you pay the bills? Do you often feel that it must be obvious because you put in time and effort? Well, from a child's point of view it is not obvious and there is nothing sweeter than hearing words of affection.
Most modern parents know that they need to tell their child that they love him. In previous generations it was not as common to talk about feelings as it is today. I have met many Baby Boomers who complain that they never heard the words "I love you",., ever, from their parents. Many have told me that they never doubted their parents' love for them, but it would have been nice to be told explicitly. However, others were never sure of their parents' love and grew up insecure about relationships.
Even though we now have a culture of verbalising feelings, it does not mean parents actually do. One reason is that despite the culture, on an individual level many feel uncomfortable. If you are one of these parents, learn to express loving feelings. Make time in your busy day to connect and articulate your positive feelings. Not only will it enhance your relationship with your children, it will also build their self-esteem.
Sincerity is vital. Some parents let the words "I love you" roll off their- tongue at every opportunity. Waking up, going to sleep, answering the phone, dropping off at school can be accompanied with a casual "love you" that can be meaningless to a child.
It carries the same weight as "see you later" or "have a nice day" whereas taking time to connect, and talk with meaning stays with a child for a long time.
While verbalising loving feelings is essential and needs to be done regularly and meaningfully, it is not enough. It is also essential to demonstrate love through actions. One way is to protect your child from physical or verbal abuse. No matter how much you say you care, if you allow your partner to insult or hurt your child, for example, they will never believe that you love them. If there is a baby sitter or teacher who is a destructive force in your child's life, take a stand. It is your role to protect your child when real damage is being perpetrated.
Help him save face. You are the safety net your child has between him and the big world. When you do not provide safety, then he will feel unimportant, scared and unloved. For example, let's say you are at a birthday party and your daughter spills some cold drink on the carpet. The best thing you can do is clean it up and say something like, "Anyone can spill cold drink. I've spilt red cold drink many times in my life. All we have to do is clean it up". Compare this to saying, You stupid idiot. Look what you've done. Now I have to clean it up. I can't take you anywhere."
Can you see how your child will feel unprotected as if it is she versus you and the world? If you feel it is necessary, you may want to tell your child later, in the privacy of your home, not to run with a cold drink so that she can improve her behaviour. But in the moment, in public, your job is to say, "I'm with you, I'm with you against the world. Everyone else can think you're clumsy, but I'm standing at your side". Undoubtedly, that will prove your love and cement your child's self-esteem!
Prioritise your child over material objects. Using the example about spilling red drink — when you scream, or put your child down about a stain, the message that you're giving is that the carpet, a material object, is more important than her feelings. Before you shout about the red drink, ask yourself, "How important is this mess in the scheme of things?" When you see the problem in perspective and normalise it, your child will know that she is the priority.
By letting your child know that material objects are less important than they are, and fixing the problem only after you know that your child feels happy and safe, teaches your child that she is precious to you.
Simply enjoy your child's company. Think about it. No matter how a much you tell him that you love him — if you prefer to have him out of your space, he will feel unloved. This seems obvious too but unfortunately, so many of us are so tired and so busy that our children feel like a burden. True, you get through every day, but you don't really enjoy your time spent with them. You do not really listen to what they have to say, or joke with them, or make them feel like they're great company. Sometimes parenting becomes so serious, that your child doesn't feel that you like them as a human being or that you like `chilling' together.
On the other hand, when you chat on the way to school, or share a joke while you watch TV, or ask them their opinion when a topic comes up, your child's self- esteem will build enormously. You do not need to find extra hours in the day to help your child feel loved. Nor do you need to do mental gymnastics to find superlatives to praise common behaviour. All you need to do is sit down every now and then, listen to your child, ask his opinion and show pleasure at being together. Genuine expressions such as "that sounds funny"; or "you're so interesting", or "I love being with you" will be the major ingredients your child requires to feel loved and valued as a human being.