Since having a daughter of my own I’ve been thinking about how to make sure she doesn’t end up with the same issue of low self-esteem I had growing up.
The sad fact is that the majority of children today grow up believing that there is something wrong with the way they look. One in five 5-year-olds are unhappy with their bodies. Where in the rules of life does it say that this is okay?!
The fault lies with us, the adults, and in how we relate to ourselves and to others.
It starts with us being aware as parents
Ads and media typically offer a highly one-sided image of what a human body looks like. TV programmes and pictures in magazines make it clear what kind of body is ideal and acceptable: women should be skinny and men should be muscular.
Advertising images are infuriatingly misleading. Boys think that they should look like the muscular models in the product images and brand ads when they put on a pair of jeans or boxers.
Girls grow up believing that they should look like the female models on the catwalks, who are very slim and who’s images usually have been retouched to portray an impossible standard.
And social media stokes the fire: this is where children follow brands and celebrities who post images that are heavily edited (or have images posted of them, as with Lorde, below).
The adults in a child’s life have the biggest impact on what kind of body image is formed. If a child is surrounded by people who are constantly dieting, he/she will assume that to be the standard to live up to.
How a parent relates to their child, themselves and others is essential when setting an example in self-worth.
What is self-esteem?
Strong self-esteem is an essential part of good mental health. It’s basically a positive attitude towards yourself and faith in that you can manage life as well as anyone else.
It generally creates a good tolerance for stress, a strong ability to withstand adversity, good social networks, success at work and overall contentment in life.
As parents, we should cherish the thought that our children are good enough as they are. Working to improve self-esteem is something that is always worth the effort — you never know when that vote of confidence will see your kid through a challenge.
When children have a feeling that they are good and worth protecting, it will shelter them from exclusion
When, inevitably, your kids are asked if they want to try this cigarette or that pill, they will weigh their options: on one hand, they will gain street cred and acceptance among their friends. On the other hand, they are risking their health to do so.
If they think that they are worth protecting, they will say “No thank you, I don’t need it”.
Knowing and appreciating their own bodies helps children protect themselves.
Teach your children safety skills: teach them to say ‘no’
No one should ever have to go beyond what they feel comfortable doing just to please others.
It is our responsibility to teach our children to respect and protect the sanctity of their own and others’ bodies, hearts and minds.
Touch is something that should always come after consent and being forced to hug relatives or allow acquaintances to touch you when you don’t want to — simply because saying ‘no’ is considered rude — is violating that integrity.
Our mission as parents is to show our children how to interact with other people in a way that gives them control and strengthens their self-confidence. Waving and shaking hands are great alternatives to hugging that require less physical contact but still allow them to connect and socialise with others.
Are you comfortable in your own skin?
Do you think you are the right kind of person? The right size? Have the right temperament? Do you believe that you matter?
Are you loved, accepted, appreciated, admired? Do you feel that you are good enough as you are?
As parents there is one simple thing we can do to build up the self-esteem of our children: be happy with ourselves.
We as parents are a mirror to our children. Are we being an accepting mirror?
How we adults perceive our own bodies and how we treat them is a model of behaviour that affects our children in a powerful and profound way. We should not belittle, torment or be too critical of ourselves or our partners.
If children see that we are judgemental towards ourselves and others — including them — trying to raise their self-esteem in other ways isn’t going to work.
We should do anything and everything that improves, not only our well-being, but also how we cope with emotions and the compassion we have for ourselves.
The influence we have on our children is enormous, says Dr Raisa Cacciatore, a Finnish paediatrician and children’s psychologist.
She advises to, “Think about where the dissatisfaction in your own age, body or personality comes from. Adults need gentleness, compassion and approval as much as children do. It gives us the strength to create change.”
Practice being okay with yourself as you are
When I’m feeling down in the dumps about something to do with myself, I’ve taken to creating a little safe mental space where I can take a break from all the monkeys on my back.
I do just 1 minuter per time (you have 60 seconds to spare in order to feel better about yourself, don’t you?) of not judging myself and accept myself the way I am right now.
If I’ve got a specific issue (which it almost always is) I focus on deconstructing that and finding that place where I can really start believing that I actually, really am just fine the way I am at that very moment.
It goes something like this:
Self: “I feel like a fat cow.”
Me: “You’re okay the way you are; you have two working arms and two legs and you can do things. So it’s not really that bad, is it? You can go for walks and you’ll feel better and forget about feeling fat and remember what it feels like to be healthy instead. Being out of shape doesn’t lessen your value as a person.”
Or another common one:
Self: “I’m a failure and everyone else has their life figured out.”
Me: “It’s okay to not know exactly what you want all the time, remember that a life (or career or business or painting or whatever) isn’t built in an instant, it takes time and patience. Just because everyone else’s life looks perfect on social media, doesn’t mean that they have it all figured out. You’re just seeing the highlight-reel because nobody wants to advertise their challenges and failures to the world.”
You get the gist. The point is to, just for a small limited time, take the wind out of the sails of whatever negative thing is gnawing at my mind. If I fall back into the negativity, rinse and repeat.
Eventually, with enough of these 60-second positivity doses per day, life starts looking a lot more positive and I feel much better about myself in general.
How you talk to yourself and about yourself genuinely matters.
Practising this — or meditation or yoga or doing a gratitude log or whatever feels best— will give you enough headspace to actually start focusing on the things that you do like and are doing right, as opposed to focusing on the things that you dislike or do inadequately.
It’s never too late to build self-esteem
Some parents worry that they have passed on their own low self-esteem to their children. The good news is that self-esteem is pliable and can be improved at any time in life. It’s never too late.
Thoughts like “Am I enough?” or “Am I appreciated?” are just beliefs that can be changed.
Self-esteem is generally at its lowest between the ages of 12 and 14. Children need support especially when they experience a crushing disappointment or a feeling of finality: when they think that a bad situation cannot possibly get better anymore.
When self-esteem hits rock bottom children need a calm, collected adult to tell them, “It’s OK, it’s just a feeling, it will pass and you’ll be fine”.
The level of self-esteem that has developed by the time you start high school will typically stay with you through life. If you have good self-esteem it will continue to improve until you are 50–60 years old.
How the development of self-esteem is supported up until the age of 15 is crucial, says Dr Cacciatore.
A follow-up study conducted in Finland found that children whose self-esteem was low at age 15, had lower self-esteem than their more confident counterparts even several years on. It found that 18 per cent of girls had low self-esteem in 9th grade and that ten years later it had grown to 20 per cent.
Children’s brains renew themselves every two weeks
According to Dr Cacciatore, a child’s brain renews itself about every two weeks. New thoughts and fears are constantly developing in a child’s brain. This is why it is important to often ask children what they are thinking right now; what are they feeling, dreaming about or afraid of.
Even if an answer isn’t given right away or if it comes after a week (or never), it is still worth it to keep asking these questions.
Children have a right to be heard even when they don’t have the power to make a decision. It is enough that they feel they are regularly seen and heard.
Conversations should also be had without any distractions. Put away cell phones and laptops, turn off TV programmes and games when you’re having a conversation.
A caring and genuinely interested adult is what boosts a child’s self-esteem.
Parents today face a big challenge
“Modern parents — and grandparents — are facing a big challenge, because parenting has changed dramatically,” says Dr Cacciatore. “Violent traditions related to raising children should not be continued. Don’t discipline your child physically or psychologically.”
Violence will make your child feel that her body is not worth protecting and that it’s OK to mistreat it. Guide children to respect and protect their own and others’ bodies.
You should also avoid psychological violence, such as embarrassing or belittling your child, invalidating their feelings and opinions or threatening to abandon them.
Try to raise your child’s self-esteem through positivity by saying things such as; “if you would wear a little less eye makeup/cut your bangs a little shorter everyone could see how beautiful your eyes are” or “ if you would stand up straight everyone could see how handsome you are”.
Children today are more skilful and comfortable online than most adults will ever be
Today’s parents are competing for their children’s time with enormous things, such as social media, which utilises psychology and is engineered around short dopamine-driven reward cycles.
In social media we are constantly seeking validation and looking to feel good about ourselves.
“[In social media] we curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded in these short-term signals — hearts, likes, thumbs up — and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth and what it really is is fake, brittle popularity that’s short-term and that leaves you even more (admit it) vacant and empty [than] before you did it,” says Chamath Palihapitiya, an early developer of Facebook and venture capitalist.
“Because then it forces you into this vicious cycle where you’re like ‘What’s the next thing I need to do now? Because I need it back.’ Think about that compounded by two billion people and then think about how people react to the perceptions of others. It’s just really, really bad,” he continues.
The behaviour of young internet users is being shaped by social media
Children today have to form their public image very early on because they are constantly being judged on social media. The labels gained in childhood or during the teenage years can really stick and be in use for years to come.
Cyberbullying can be detrimental to self-esteem precisely because it happens in such a public place and, unlike schoolyard bullying, it leaves a digital record that can be shared and passed around.
“In our recent study, Digital Deception: Exploring the Online Disconnect between Parents and Kids, it was found that 93% of youth (ages 10–17) have at least one social media account, and 86% check those accounts daily . . . it was found that Facebook, Ask.fm, and Twitter were the three sites where bullying occurred the most–although Facebook was a clear frontrunner with 54% of reports originating from those using the well-known social networking tool.”— McAfee, Cyberbullying: Words do Hurt When it Comes to Social Media
How many likes you get, how many friends you have and how viral your content is has become the new measure of social status.
Read Corey Simon’s story on how releasing himself from the grip of social media changed his life: I’m 17 And I Deleted All My Social Media. Here’s What Happened.
Kids benchmark their lives on the people they follow, without realising that they’re comparing themselves to a filtered, largely curated and unrealistic version of reality that makes them feel inadequate.
Photos are all about angles and posing – both things that social media influencers will spend a lot of time on in order to get the right shot.
Sara Puhto, @saggysara, often tackles the differences between Instagram-ready and real life. She repeatedly points out that no one can determine what the truth about someone’s health or fitness is based on posed photographs – let alone the state of their mental health.
In another tale about how social media affects your behaviour, Carmin Chappelle writes about her use of Twitter at the age of 17. “In less than 140 characters, I provided a selective glimpse into my thoughts, only revealing those that made the best impression,” says Chappelle.
Puberty doesn’t make things any easier
Puberty is a challenging time for self-esteem because a child only has the experience of being a child up to that point.
The hormonal storms accompanied by periods and random erections are scary. In puberty, friends can also start bullying each other easily, because they realise that others are confused too and any opportunity to gain a measure of control over the chaos is readily seized.
When starting high school children are dealing with puberty and this considerably increases the pressure to fight for your place in the spotlight. Puberty is notorious for bringing with it a lot of pressure about looks: girls idealising being skinny and boys muscularity.
The absolutely last thing you want is to be the weak one in the herd, so the pressure to fit into acceptable norms is tremendous.
It is important to not create more pressure around looks. As a parent, you should avoid saying things like “she’s gotten so fat again” or “he’s got such greasy skin” or “your feet can’t be a size 6 already!”.
What makes someone beautiful?
You should think about beauty together with your children. Ask them what they think beauty is or what handsomeness is, what makes someone beautiful or handsome and what it gets you.
Is beauty born of goodness, cleanliness, love, happiness, being in balance with yourself, being popular, dressing the right way, being skinny or muscular?
Are skinny people happier? Who deserves to be accepted as who they are?
You can’t change your genes but you can change just about everything else: how you dress, how you behave, that you are cleanly and organised, by taking care of your health, by eating well and being optimistic and flourishing as a person.
You should also discuss what a normal body looks like and assure them that a regular body is all that you need. There is no need for you to look like a supermodel in order to be loved and appreciated.
Point out when you see images that have been Photoshopped or when other enhancements are clearly visible (e.g. plastic surgery, botox etc.). Discuss how images in media, advertising and social media don’t often depict how people really look.
Repeatedly remind them that what you see in social media is curated, even when it isn’t altered and that even celebrities are insecure enough to not admit their photos are being Photoshopped.
In the end your life is about you and how happy you are with yourself, not how well you’re doing by someone else’s standards. So long as you have a blast, who cares what other people think?
Closeness raises self-esteem
Having a close relationship with your children promotes good self-esteem in them. The more you hug them, wrestle and tickle them, hold their hand when out shopping and snuggle up on the couch with them when watching a movie, the better their ability to deal with stress will be.
They will also benefit from a better body image and increased emotional intelligence.
You should also be physically close with boys, though it can feel strange at first if it isn’t something you’re used to in your family. After the fifth hug, it won’t feel strange anymore.
Chauvinism restricts the life and development of boys when they have to live up to a culture of heroism, where men aren’t vulnerable and don’t require gentleness.
This sets up an expectation for manliness that is very demanding and extremely narrow, especially when boys want to grow up to be successful pillars of society.
“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”— Virginia Satir, Psychotherapist
It is also good for children to be cared for by both men and women. When men don’t participate in the daily care of the children — like feeding, playing, changing nappies and clothes and cleaning up after the children — it implies that the helplessness and incompleteness of young children does not belong in the world of grown men, or worse yet: that it is not the domain of men to care for their offspring.
The models learned at home will affect whether a child experiences that it is a good or a bad thing to be a girl or a boy that will grow into a woman or a man.
The protection of self-esteem should be – not only a familial – but a national, global, universal cause . This is the future we are nurturing, after all.
Consider the emotional atmosphere of your family
What kind of ideas do you teach in your family? Do the sexes appreciate each other? How do men and women speak to each other? What is acceptable for men and women to do?
The atmosphere of a child’s life, mainly created by the parents, has a significant impact on self-esteem.
The atmosphere at home is diminished by things like inadequate life-management skills, financial difficulties, crises and illness.
Children instinctively sense a crisis and begin to adapt by masking and hiding their own challenges.
All crises should be clarified and discussed at the children’s level, otherwise, they will bear the burden of everything that is happening in the family silently.
Suggested conversation starters with children:
- What do you dream of?
- What is your purpose and what is my purpose?
- What are good values? / What values are important to you?
- What are you afraid of?
- What do you think of yourself? / How do you see yourself?
- What do you think about ads?
- What role does competition play in society? Is there competition in school for grades/other things?
- What makes a good person? / What does it mean to have a good heart?
- What qualities does a good friend have?
- What things give you happiness and why?
- What do you find difficult to do and why?
- What are you thinking right now?
4 ways to help your children develop resilience
Ultimately our job as parents is to make sure we don’t have a job anymore because all children will grow up and go on to live their lives.
How well our children — the future adults of the world — cope with life comes down to how well we manage to overcome our own worry for them and support them making their own choices.
This means letting go of that overwhelming need to protect them and to step in do things for them.
To be able to positively influence and coach your child you need to have a good relationship with them. Only then is it possible to help them by bringing your own point of view.
A good relationship is warm and caring, one where you take your child seriously and they understand that you’re on their side.
1. Mastery begets mastery
Resilience is built from learning that you can pick yourself up, try again and succeed. To learn resilience your child needs a lot of emotional support as well as some experience of success.
We all learn from overcoming challenges, but continuous failure sets us up for a cycle of lack of confidence and giving up which leads to more failure.
It is important that we experience success because that motivates us to take on bigger challenges and more difficult tasks.
Our job is to be like a coach to our children and let them play the game while we offer input during timeouts. Doing things for our children, that they need to be doing themselves, will only rob them of the opportunities they need to become competent at something.
Instead we should do things with our children and build their confidence. Forget perfection and reign in the temptation to do it for them or correct them once they’ve done it.
Constantly intervening will only undermine your children’s ability to learn for themselves, so stand by and be ready for when, and if, they really need help.
2. Promote problem-solving
When faced with a challenge they aren’t sure how to overcome, talk to your children and help them to think of what options they have. You can remind them of how they overcame another challenge previously to help them see that they are able.
Teaching your children to think about other options will develop their flexibility and help them cope with other challenging situations in life.
“Kids are confident when they’re able to negotiate getting what they want.”— Myrna Shure, PhD, author of Raising a Thinking Child
Dr Myrna Shure, PhD, found in her research that even young children can be taught to solve problems for themselves. If your child complains that another child took their truck at the playground, you should ask what they think is a good way to get it back.
If the first idea they have is to go and grab the truck back, you should ask what they think will happen if they do. Dr Shure then suggests to follow up with, “Can you think of other ways to get it back so that doesn’t happen?”.
In one of her studies about this very situation, Dr Shure found that 4-year-olds came up with surprisingly mature ideas, such as telling the truck-grabber, “You’ll have more fun if you play with me than if you play by yourself”.
3. Teach your children to deal with distressing thoughts
Everyone gets distressing or oppressive thoughts every now and again. To help children cope with worry, anxiety and disappointment, you should teach them thinking skills, such as distancing themselves.
The worst thing you can do is to push them aside and think that they are being bad because that’s when they’ll really start bothering you.
Instead, teach your children to let unpleasant thoughts come and go without having to live them. What’s important is to learn how to recognise them and you can ask, “When you get a thought like this, what could you do with it?”.
The key is to help children learn the skills with which they can stop and take a breath, when the mind is engulfed in a storm of thoughts. The ability to influence and work with your own thoughts helps to cope with pressure and disappointment.
Children develop at different paces and have different temperaments. A very calm, self-regulating child may need some encouragement to get on with things, while a more spontaneous child might need more help with slowing down and thinking things through.
4. Don’t fear the feelings
It’s okay for children to get frustrated and experience disappointment. Your empathy will be the critical factor in overcoming the disappointment.
Instead of jumping in to remove the source of the frustration, strive to give the situation a larger context and communicate your compassion for them having to encounter this challenge.
You might say things like:
- “I’m sorry this is so hard…”
- “This must make you feel horrible…”
- “I realise this isn’t how you hoped this would turn out…”
- “I understand that it’s really disappointing when…”
They may cry for hours or sulk all day, but your unconditional understanding will help them to grieve — and you should allow them the space to grieve.
Depending on how big a setback it is, they may even go through some or all of the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Once they’re done grieving though, they’ll be ready to dust themselves off, pull it together and have another go. Especially when you express confidence in their ability to see it through: this is how children develop resilience.