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Communication Strategies to Build Children's Self-Esteem

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

Encourage Children's Self-Assessment

Parents may additionally avoid criticizing children by asking children to assess their own behavior rather than commenting on it themselves. For example, rather than expressing direct disapproval at a child's math grade, a father might ask that child a series of questions that encourages the child to think about how their performance was related to their preparation or lack thereof.

  • "How do you feel about this grade?"
  • "What effort did you put into studying?"
  • "Can you think of what might need to change in order to improve your grades in the future"

Questions like this help children to make connections between their behavior and their performance, and highlight the importance of good study preparation effort for improving grades. Some children will make the connection between how they did on the test and their studying effort, and become motivated to study harder, or to request and accept help such as tutoring. Other children may not see these connections and may not accept responsibility for the outcomes. Some children will externalize and see their own performance difficulties as the fault of outside forces they have no control over. If this is the case, parents can point this out as well, and encourage the child to see the situation more objectively. Like any other aspect of development, learning how to do math involves a combination of nature and nurture. Children's ability to and willingness to study, and to learn how to study effectively are vital and important contributors to their academic success, even if grades are also partially influenced by other factors that are harder to change (such as intelligence).

Keep Children Informed

Another way to encourage positive self-esteem through communication is to keep youth informed about important events and transitions affecting their lives, such as the death or illness of a family member or pet, the need to move to a new home, or parents' marital problems and separation or divorce plans. Children who are aware of such events, and who understand why those events are happening are more able to prepare themselves for those events, to feel confident in their ability to handle them, and to draw accurate conclusions from those events rather than inappropriate or wrong ones.

Children are sensitive to parents' emotional state and will intuitively know when things are amiss or in flux and parents are worried and anxious. If they do not know the facts about what is happening, they will speculate and possibly draw inaccurate conclusions that could lead them to become unnecessarily distressed. They may believe that they did something wrong, that they're bad, or that they can't be trusted with important information. It is fairly common, for instance, for children who notice that their parents' relationship isn't going well to falsely conclude that they must have caused this relationship problem to happen. Clarifying for children what is occurring (a separation or divorce, or just a disagreement, now resolved) helps children to know what they are faced with. Telling children that they did not cause their parents' tensions can help somewhat to set their minds at ease.

Parents need to consider their children's developmental maturity levels in deciding what and how much to tell them. Parents also need to consider that some information will simply always be inappropriate for them to share, as it may hurt children to know it. If a couple is divorcing, it is important for them to tell all their children, regardless of age, that the divorce will be occurring, and that they did not cause the divorce. It is appropriate to talk about how the divorce will affect the family's living arrangements and other concrete ways in which the divorce will affect children's daily routines. It may be appropriate for parents to tell older children more facts. This is particularly the case if it is apparent that older children already know some of the facts on account of having overhearing parents yell at each other during fights. It may be the case that an affair has occurred which has fractured an already fragile marriage. Possibly, an older child who has picked up on this fact might benefit from having his suspicions confirmed. However, to the extent that children do not already know the ugly details, it is not in their interest to learn them. It is never appropriate for either parent to discuss an affair in any detail, or to criticize the other parent in front of the children. To do so breaks the healthy boundary between parents and children by inviting the child to become a confidant, and to take sides against the other parent. Such action reverses the normal roles that define parent-child relationships; instead of children coming to parents for comfort, now the parent comes to the child for comfort. Such role reversal is at least confusing for children and more commonly, becomes an overwhelming, uncomfortable and undesired responsibility which leads to later resentment.

Model Appropriate Coping Behavior

Parents can support children's developing self-esteem through their actions as well as their words. In particular, parents can model the behaviors they want their children to learn by acting those behaviors out in front of children. One important behavior parents can teach in this manner is how to talk about, express, and cope with powerful feelings such as embarrassment, sadness, frustration, and anger.

Children can learn how to cope with feelings of anger by watching their parents cope with similar anger feelings in an effective manner. A mother can demonstrate effective anger coping by saying out loud that she feels angry, and then visibly modeling self-soothing behaviors such as taking a time-out, counting to ten, or taking a walk. She can further make the point by talking about how the action she is performing is designed to help her calm down.

"I'm really upset and don't feel that I can continue this discussion right now without yelling. I'm going to take a few deep breaths and count to ten to see if that helps me calm down. Then, when I'm feeling a little calmer, we can continue."