Andrea Chatten, the founder of mental health service Unravel, is the Lead Children’s Emotional & Behavioural Psychologist and author of The Blinks novels. Here, she discusses raising child self-esteem and its effect on behaviour…
I have always been fascinated in children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties. Starting out as a teacher, I recognised that, although it was my role to educate them in maths, English and the ten plus subjects that they needed to be taught, but these children needed more. I felt passionate and committed to help these children understand some of the difficult and complex feelings that they were experiencing, and which hugely affected their well-being. No matter how clever they had the potential to be, unless they received lots of emotional understanding and different ways of doing things, these kids could miss out on the most important thing we want for children – happiness.
When I became a parent I found myself challenged with the level of responsibility and pressure to ensure that my children did not become as emotionally vulnerable as some of the children who I had worked with for many years. Parenting was by far the most difficult job that I had done as it was the most important. Don’t get me wrong the love and commitment I had for my class really wasn’t much different to what I felt for my own children but this role was about me helping my children evolve from the blank canvas that they were born as.
As parents, carers and teachers, we are fundamental in how our child’s canvas develops. How much colour is present? How much grey? How the colours are dispersed, how bright those colours are and more importantly how appealing the final product is within our culture.
Raising children with good self-esteem takes patience, huge, regular bundles of patience, as children translate patience into love. Patience means being gentle. Patience makes us listen more actively. Patience means we find time in this crazy fast world to stop and just be in the moment with our children. This love then becomes locked away inside of children and activates a core message that runs through them like a stick of rock. In order for children to develop a good level of self-esteem the message needs to be positive – “I am ok. I’m not perfect, I have faults but I am ok. I am worthy of love.”
Reading this may make you feel pressured as it is your job and you, like every champion of the children in your care has made mistakes. You too just need to be ok, not perfect, you have flaws and bad days too. I had to have a serious word with myself when both my children were small. Coping day to day with sleep deprivation, a hungry breastfeeding baby and a toddler was tough. Some days I was not the best Mum. As I had only ever worked with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, it seemed so easy to mess up children and damage their self-esteem. Please let me reassure you now it isn’t that easy.
Long term damage to self-esteem develops over time. Not from a bad day here and there, though how we re-engage with our child afterwards is essential. Apologies and explanations mean we take responsibility for negative actions and don’t leave them with the child. It also means that we model real emotions and make mistakes a normal part of being human. If we don’t re-connect emotionally afterwards, that can make children feel like it is their fault and they aren’t good enough. It is this internal dialogue that can begin the spiral of low self-esteem.
Children’s self-esteem starts with us. We have to find as many ways to show children that we not only love them but like them. Also, it is essential that if our children have pushed us into going off them, that this stage is only ever temporary and we the adults get back on them as soon as possible. Children are highly sensitive to this emotional withdrawal and that too fosters low self-esteem.
Raising children with good self-esteem is not difficult if we practise positive interactions and keep reflecting throughout the process. None us are perfect but with love, patience, and emotional warmth our children’s canvases can be bright, colourful and most of all happy.
Top tips to help support your child’s emotional well-being
1. Get in sync – emotional connection is key. It is normal to disconnect with our children, life is demanding. However, when children don’t feel positively connected to us, it impacts on their well-being which is often communicated by negative behaviours
2. Communicate as much as possible from as early as possible. Talking with each other is how we learn, and problem solve, and it starts younger than we once thought. If you want to be having meaningful conversations with your teenager’s start being open and honest when they are two or three.
3. Listen to what your children tell you – they will teach us. It can be difficult hearing hurtful things from our children, but they are telling us what they need. Don’t hear what they say actively listen.
4. Avoid general praise – be specific. Avoid using words like good and bad with kids. This can negatively impact on identity and well-being. Instead reward and praise the action, progress or value. They are less likely to reject this kind of praise and it fosters healthier self-esteem
5. Keep reflecting. The only difference between a positive parent and a negative parent is reflection. It certainly won’t stop us making mistakes, but we might make fewer mistakes and certainly not keep making the same ones!
6. Help children to name and claim emotions. Our emotions are designed to keep us alive. We must acknowledge them otherwise the brain will turn the volume up on them meaning we feel emotions much more intensely. Once we name them our brain relaxes in the hope, we will then do something about it.
7. Help your child challenge their worries and fears with evidence. Most of our thoughts are just guesses. Become emotions detectives with your kids and help them to learn that our brain isn’t always our friend.
8. Don’t be afraid to show your variety of emotions so that children see that they are normal and that they come and go. Talk about them together and if you have nor dealt with an emotion as well as you would have liked, apologise and explain.
9. Model the behaviours you want to see in your child. If you are shouting and slamming doors because you are stressed, then they will learn to do the same.
10. Check in on your own wellbeing. If you aren’t feeling great, then neither will your children and vice versa. As parents we must make sure that parenting goes one way and that is from us to them. Invest positively into your children even if you aren’t always feeling it and their behaviour will follow suit meaning you benefit too, win-win.