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46410-6353
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Fostering Self-Esteem with Communication

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The manner in which parents communicate with their children is very important in terms of fostering children's healthy self-esteem. Parents' communication style should be about more than just communicating information or commands. It is also vital that parents carefully listen to what children have to say, paying close attention to their feelings, strike an appropriate balance between praise and correction, express confidence in children's abilities whenever possible, act in ways that respect children's privacy, and support children's need for individual expression and independent decision making. Communicating in this manner helps convey to children that they are valued (and thus that they are valuable), and provides them with a sense of healthy, balanced boundaries. While their own desires, needs and opinions are important, so too are the needs of the family and social groups they participate in. These lessons thus teach and reinforce the foundation of healthy self-esteem.

We review the various aspects of healthy, self-esteem-promoting communication in the following sections.

Listening

Though children are born having feelings, they are not born with formed opinions about whether or not those feelings are legitimate. Consequently, parents have the opportunity to influence how children come to view their feelings; whether it is good or bad that feelings are occurring, and even whether they are entitled to have feelings in the first place.

One of the best ways parents can teach children that their feelings are acceptable and important is by paying careful attention to children's feelings and then providing them with feedback that feelings are okay things to have. In order to do this, parents must make a point of really listening carefully to what children are saying, going beyond words to pick up on emotions that may be unnamed, and thus outside of children's awareness.

Paying attention to children's feelings and taking care to validate them can be a surprisingly difficult task. This is particularly the case when children are talking about things that seem trivial or unimportant to adults. What parents need to keep firmly in mind is that children do not have the benefit of years of experience with which to put things into perspective. What may seem trivial to a parent may actually seem monumentally important to children. Parents who fail to grasp this risk alienating their children by unintentionally displaying the fact that they "just don't get it". In fact, parents do get it, but not in a way that a child is able to appreciate.

Parents can best avoid communicating to children that their concerns are unimportant or trivial by taking care to give children their full attention while talking with them, by making eye contact to convey their attention is fixed upon them, and by making appropriate (and heartfelt!) noises of sympathy at appropriate moments. The full range of emotions can be handled in this way; happy, excited, sad, frustrated, and embarrassed. When parents give children this high level of attention and sympathy, they are communicating to them that their feelings are real and important, and that children are entitled to have them.

Children do not natively know the words used to describe different feelings, or the connections that exist between particular kinds of thoughts and feelings. While listening to children and paying attention to their emotions, parents have the opportunity to teach children what the labels are for different emotions, and to help them make the connections between thoughts and feelings by simply pointing these connections out.