New year. New adventures. New opportunities for Development and Growth.
At 59, I decided to complete my life circle and retire from executive leadership to return to my first love and true calling: working with traumatized individuals. I opened up my private therapy practice, called Willow Tree Family Counseling. I wanted to work with adults and children who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences, (ACES) walking with them through the path of healing. In my former life with child welfare, I observed the agency pattern of focusing on the children who had been abused, but not really trying to reach the ignored trauma victim (the parent). The cycle of abuse is very clear…Hurt people hurt people.
Hurt people Hurt people
If you understand that, then the practice of “fixing the child” and reuniting with a broken adult seems rather ludicrous does it not? Holistically, taping up one leg of a broken stool and ignoring the other two cracked legs will result in an unstable stool that cannot stand for long. Therefore, spending energy focusing on the underlying issues with traumatized children without spending an equal amount of energy focusing on the underlying issues of the parents does not work. Hence the tragedy of children returning to care over and over again.
I visualized my practice being mostly adults who experienced ACES or Families who were hurting, as well as children/adolescents. Interestingly enough, while I do have the above clients, my referrals are by and large mostly young children between 7-12, who are experiencing anxiety, early signs of depression and explosive anger. Working with these children still allows me to work with their parents (when the parents are around); but many of my clients are being raised by grandparents and/or other relatives.’
In assessing these children, one theme continues to rise: Low Self-Worth.
In this generation of “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” it is a bit surprising to see how many children are plague with low self-esteem. The concerns leading them into therapy are mostly behavioral, but at the core of it all, I am finding that many of them just feel “they are not good enough.” These feelings of being inadequate or having little worth tend to express themselves in anger outbursts, anxieties and depressive symptoms.
You may want to point the fingers at these sorry parents for making their children feel inadequate. But maybe let’s take a step back and see where these feelings come from.
Sure, there are instances where parents or other important life figures contribute to feelings of worthlessness by putting the child down, setting impossible expectations or just withholding love and affection. The comments and communication that children receive from their parents or caregivers have a large effect on self-esteem. For example, relentless negative feedback (you are stupid, useless, lazy, etc.), suggesting life would be better without them, ignoring or treating children as an annoyance, and unfavorable comparisons with other children can all damage a child’s sense of self-worth Or perhaps they are abusive, neglectful or even violent to their partner in front of the children. These actions, most certainly, lead to low self worth in children.
But there are other factors that contribute.
Peer victimization: AKA Bullying. According to an article in Positive Psychology, being the victim of bullying, aggressive, and hostile behavior results in several adverse outcomes, including low self-esteem. The effect can be long-lasting, and those already lacking in self-esteem are more susceptible than others. So we can now point our fingers at these horrible bullies right? Well…. not so fast. Most bullies become bullies because they, themselves, have been subject to adverse childhood events that fostered such anger and low self worth of their own that they lash out at others.
Another contributor to low self esteem in children is poor academic performance and the pressure to be top of the class. When children feel pressured to produce above their abilities, they look inward for blame and feel defeated.
The most surprising contributor to low self-esteem I found, again from the article (Self Esteem in Children) in Positive Psychology was that excessive praise could play a part in negative self image. “Perhaps counterintuitively, praise can be a significant factor in low self-esteem (Brummelman, Nelemans, Thomaes, & Orobio de Castro, 2017). Findings suggest that “overly positive, inflated praise” sets unattainable standards for children and can ultimately reduce self-esteem while increasing narcissistic tendencies. The answer appears to be in praising effort rather than ability.”
So how do we, as parents, as teachers, as therapists proactively deal with the issue of low self esteem in children?
- Praise – praise children for their effort rather than for successful outcomes. Just assuring them that as long as they are doing their best, you are proud of them for trying. But encourage them to keep trying and not to give up.
- Friends – encourage them to maintain a small number of friends who accept them for who they are to promote a sense of belonging. With the drive for popularity, it is important to help your children understand that a few friends who are true friends will give their life more joy, if they can be themselves.
- Strengths – By helping your child identify their unique strengths and at least one thing they are very good at, they can build resiliency and self-worth.
- I love you! Just the way you are! – let the child know they are loved and valued. The simple act of saying you love them, with no reason or trigger to do so, can be powerful.
- They need to belong – promote an understanding of being part of something bigger–a family or community–by sharing family photos and stories, joining groups, participating in community festivals, and creating family rituals.
- Try new things – encourage the child to find and try new things (whether they are successful or not). Again praise the effort not the outcome.
- Handle problems – encourage children to overcome difficulties by thinking calmly, trying different approaches, asking for help, and practicing kindness to themselves when things don’t work out.
The challenge: When you notice your child, a child you are working with or a child in your class acting out, appearing to be depressed or overly anxious, take a deeper look. Perhaps they are acting out because they do not know how to express their feelings of worthlessness. You could be the first step in working with them to identify these feelings and a plan to increase their self-esteem.