by Renee Mill, Clinical Psychologist
Originally published in Sydney Child, September 2006
Most parents today understand that having good self esteem is a vital ingredient of their child's success at school and in friendships. Penny* and Mark* were no exception when they consulted me about their daughter Jessica* They told me that from a very early age they had tried to build Jessica's self esteem and yet, at age seven, she clearly still lacked confidence. One example was at a school pantomime last year, when Jessica "froze" on stage. Another was her avoidance of activities she felt she was not good at, like painting.
Penny and Mark were upset and confused about what was happening with Jessica and that is why they came to see me. There were no major problems or stresses in their lives. Jessica was going to an excellent school and Penny and Mark were involved and concerned parents.
Taking a full history, I asked Jenny and Mark how they had attempted to build Jessica's self esteem over the years. Proudly Mark told me that since Jessica was little, he has told her every day that she is the most special girl in the whole world. Penny told me that when Jessica brought home drawings from pre-school, she would praise the piece as if it were a work of art. In fact, it soon became clear to me that whatever action Jessica did, no matter how mundane, her parents would go out of their way to acknowledge it. Common comments were: "you are so clever," "you are a good girl", "you draw just like Van Gogh" and "you are the best!"
Building self esteem in a child is multi-faceted. However, in the last fifteen years, there seems to have been so much hype on positive reinforcement and praise that other factors have been neglected. I decided to focus on teaching these parents about "helpful praise" and "unhelpful praise" because praise was the area that they had put so much energy into already. The other aspects could be taught later.
After endorsing Penny and Mark for their love of Jessica, and for the effort that they had put into building her self esteem, I explained that praise is like medicine and needs to be administered in the correct way and in the correct dosage. For praise to be helpful, and effective in building self esteem, it needs to be specific, present, descriptive, and realistic. Moreover, helpful praise focuses on the character of the child rather than the outcome of an activity.
By specific I mean that a comment that specifies that Jessica is special to her family, or in a particular situation, will go a long way to building feelings of confidence. I explained that when Jessica is told that she is 'the best girl in the whole world', it is unhelpful. She may feel good at the time but it will not be effective in building self esteem. I asked Penny how she would feel if Mark told her that she is the most beautiful woman in the whole world. Jenny giggled and said "I wish I was". With prodding, Penny added that she knows that it is not true (she has stretch marks and needs a hair cut) but appreciated that Mark was trying to help her to feel good about herself. In other words, she felt loved by Mark, but the praise did nothing to enhance her feelings of worth. I then asked her how she would feel if Mark told her that she was the most beautiful woman in the world to him. Penny glowed and said that that felt genuine and also made her feel special to Mark.
Young children understand that they are not "the greatest", the "the smartest" or "the prettiest". Children are more than happy to hear that their parents would not swap them for any other child and that, to the parents' mind, they are the best child the parents could have asked for.
By present I mean that a compliment that applies to the here and now is more effective than a global statement like "you are the cleverest girl in the world". While Jessica may have done well on one maths test, she knows that on the previous test Monica performed better. She also knows that Lisa excels in English and she does not. Thus, helpful praise would be to tell Jessica that "This test shows that you can add quickly and accurately. Well done." This will give her an insight into a specific ability that she has which in turn will boost her perception of herself. Also, she feels affirmed for the current situation which is easier for her to believe and make part of her self awareness.
A comment that is descriptive is more helpful than a blanket comment like "that is good work" or "that is a nice picture". In order for Jessica to know what constitutes good work, she needs to hear from the adults in her life what that means. Instead of saying "good work", it is helpful to say "your writing is really neat and easy to read" and Jessica will know exactly what she did right. This in turn will assist her in the future to continue to be neat. It will also tell her that she has a specific skill (in this case neatness) and that will go a long way to giving her positive feelings about her abilities. Some examples of helpful comments when Jessica draws include: "Your drawing is so colourful and makes me feel happy when I look at it"; or "I see you put a lot of detail into the flowers in your picture - that must have taken you a long time to do"; or "That blue in the background really brings out the shape of the boat. I see that you understand the importance of the background in a painting" or " I like the free strokes in the front, they give the picture a relaxed feeling".
At this point, Mark confessed to me something that he had never told anyone before. He said that at times in the past he had found it exhausting having to be overjoyed at everything Jessica did. He felt relieved that he could build his daughter's self esteem simply by describing something that she had done, in an affirming manner.
Being realistic is often hard for parents because they truly want to boost their child's ego and worry that being realistic will deflate their child. I explained to Penny and Mark that their daughter, like all children, evaluates her work automatically and judges it accordingly. Trying to reassure Jessica that her work is not a mess, when to Jessica's mind it is, does nothing to assist Jessica feel better about herself. What will help her to feel adequate is describing something about her work that shows that she did, indeed, do something well. For example, when Jessica says that her English story is boring, she would find it helpful if Mark said "I understand that you feel that way. However, I must confess that I liked the name of the characters. I thought that they were original". This type of comment is very empowering as Jessica will feel that she did something worthwhile and she will be motivated to try again. She will also adore her dad for not trying to change her judgement of her story, validating her experience instead.
At this point Penny interjected saying that what bothered her most was what to say when Jessica failed at something. For example, there is no getting away from the fact that Jessica had frozen at the school pantomime. It had been devastating for Jessica and she had felt like a loser. Penny had tried to reassure her that it was only a pantomime and was not important in the grand scheme of things, but to Jessica it was a significant event. Penny then tried to remind Jessica about all the things that Jessica is good at, like maths, but Jessica would not be comforted. Being good at maths did not take away the distress of freezing during the pantomime. Penny felt helpless in this situation and then resorted to saying that Jessica should know that no matter what happens in life, Penny will always love her. At this point Jessica stormed out of the room.
I explained to Penny that when a child fails at something, she needs to be validated as a human being. A parent does this by focusing on the character of the child rather than on the outcome of a situation. Character traits include: kindness, generosity, hard working , tolerating frustration, persevering, losing with grace, striving for excellence and not giving up. In this case, Jessica demonstrated the character trait of 'doing the difficult', going on stage even though it was one of her personal nightmares. I suggested that the next time something happened where Jessica felt like a failure (and it will happen for sure) it would be helpful if Penny said something like: "It must have felt awful to be stuck on that stage. But it took a lot of courage for you to go up there in the first place and do what is hard for you. You could have avoided it but you faced your fear - that is an accomplishment."
In my opinion, focusing on the character of a child is the secret to developing self esteem in all children. I stressed to Penny and Mark that even if Jessica does brilliantly on a maths test, her character traits and not her mark should be lauded. Instead of shouting "brilliant" when she scores 100%, Mark should rather comment " I noticed that you worked really hard for this test. Well done for being so conscientious and responsible, those are important values in life".
With time, as Jessica develops a clearer picture of her qualities as a human being and measures herself by these criteria and not outcomes, her self esteem will grow and she will be able to step confidently up onto the platform of life. While Jessica might find it difficult to believe that she's "the best", she will have no problem accepting that she can add numbers quickly and has courage. Helpful praise that hits the mark is what builds self esteem.
*not their real names