The most frustrating thing I often read on advice pieces that deal with bullied kids is: Feel good about yourself! Believe in yourself! Grow your self-esteem! GAAAHHH!!!
The thing that many people don’t realize is; when you DON’T have self-esteem, being told that you should feel good about yourself is akin to being told that you should go out and enjoy a good swim when you’ve never been taught how. Way to make someone feel even worse about themselves…
As parents, the same goes. When you see your child shrinking away and being told that they are useless by the kids around them, it can be so hard to know what to do to make sure that they know their own self-worth. So tonight, I wanted to take the time to talk about what it takes to believe in yourself and know that you are not what people tell you.
I just had a conversation with a girl in her 20s whose story really touched me.She starts talking to me and tells me the story of her day; her going about her very normal life, working at her day job, and she screwed up. She made what even she could identify as being a little mistake, inconsequential in many regards, but it sent her into an emotional tailspin that she didn’t know how to get out of.
Through our conversation, I discovered that not only had she been ostracized by a group of girls at her school when she was eleven years old, but she was also repeatedly rejected by her mother when making mistakes. After our conversation together, I felt so sad that, as a child, she was not given what she needed: the positive regard and unconditional acceptance of her parents that would have shielded her from her experiences as a kid. After all, when a kid experiences ONLY bullying but no other significant hardships, it is rare that they grow up to have lasting effects from it. Often times, it takes many different adversities and difficult challenges in their lives for them to grow up with challenges (current research states that it takes about 4 or 5 major hardships for a child to start demonstrating mental health effects – poverty, bullying, mental health issues in the family, abuse, trauma, conflictual divorce…).
The combination of these experiences led her to develop what I will call an “internal rule”: “If I screw up, even only once, I risk losing everyone around me”. This “internal rule” would come out of the woodworks whenever she made a mistake, and made her feel guilty, and worried about losing someone else around her because of it.
The thing about these “internal rules” is that they are unconscious. Often times, we don’t know that we have them until something happens in our lives that make us feel horrible. If we are in tune enough to our feelings, we can get to the point that we recognize the internal rule that made us feel that certain way. And in this case, it wasn’t the fact that she made a mistake that was a big deal, it was that, in the past, she had lost so many important people to her because she thought that she had made a mistake and that it was all her fault.
Fixing these mistakes in your 20s isn’t impossible, but it’s hard. I know that so many of us parents are so afraid of our children ending up in the situation this young girl went through, but have NO IDEA what needs to be done to avoid it. At the end of the day, we are not 100% responsible for our children’s emotional wellbeing, but there are certain things that we need to develop as parents to inoculate our children from the hateful things that they will be exposed to during their lives, so those words don’t beat them down. These things start early and need to be done regularly in order to help our children know themselves and their strengths.
Self-esteem develops when two major things are put into play:
- You experience positive life events, and people (parents, teachers, strangers, friends – ANYONE!!!) take the time to reflect your qualities and skills in these life events.
- You are capable of accepting those compliments as being genuine and true. For that to happen, it all starts at home. When your parents have taken the time to highlight your positive actions and skills and have been a safe base, when you feel like the compliments you got from their parents were genuine, authentic and reality-based, you are more willing to concede that others can also give them genuine and authentic compliments.
So how can we, as parents, ensure that that positive home-base is effective at helping our child build their self-esteem?
- As soon as your children are social, highlight their good behaviours and their positive personality traits. Your 3 year-old spontaneously shared their snack with their friend? “OMG I’m so proud of you! Sweety, you are such a kind child. Look at how happy your friend is. Sharing is hard, but your friend is so happy, and you did that! Are you proud of yourself??” I know… I know… it seems over the top. But always remember that for kids to build their self-esteem, they need a lot of this. When I compliment my children, seeing their faces light up, it just makes my heart swell.
- As your child grows up, it’s important to continue taking the time to talk to them about the things they are doing that are great and what it means to you. It’s not enough to just say to your child that you think they are kind, you need to tell them about the things you’ve noticed them do that prove to you that they are so kind. So when they come home, and talk to you about how their friends were fighting and that your child took the time to talk with their friend, tell them how proud you are of that, and that it tells you how good of a person they are. Do it and do it often. Do it when they are toddlers, do it when they are children, do it EVEN MORE when they are teenagers! Even when they roll they eyes and scoff at you and tell you “whatever!” Trust me, from an outsider whose never met the kids I talk to, they remember it and it means a lot to them.
- When your child makes a mistake, don’t name call. It’s so easy, when we get angry to tell our kids that they are stupid because they failed their exam. But remember that it takes 100 “you’re so smart”s to heal from 1 “you’re stupid!” Your children will remember those times where you called them names a lot more than all those times that you took to compliment them (I mean, we all blame our parents for screwing us up – our children are the same! ;)). So if you need to talk about your child’s mistake, talk about their behaviour, and not their personality, being bad. For example, your 3 year old hit their brother because he was upset. “Sweety, you got upset at your brother and hit him. That hurt your brother and now he’s sad. It’s not okay to hit.” Instead of “you’re mean and hurt your brother! Say you’re sorry!
- If you do name-call when you get out of control, just apologize! Tell them that you were wrong, and why you did it. It can be a great learning experience for when they are dealing with their bullies; by helping them understand that people don’t mean what they say necessarily when they name-call, it’s a lot easier to understand that when their bullies name-call them, it might not necessarily be true either. That perhaps their bully was going through a tough time and took it out on them.
- Most importantly though, when they DO get better and DO act positively after making a mistake, it’s all the more important to highlight it. So if your child got angry and DIDN’T hit his brother, take the time to acknowledge it so they learn that they did grow and you did notice. If your child is generally aggressive, highlight every exception you see. Soon enough, the exceptions will become the rule.
Some people might be afraid that doing this might lead children to have an overinflated ego. Remember that narcissism doesn’t develop because of too of a high self-esteem, narcism develops as a way to overcompensate for their low self-esteem.
Some people might also be afraid that doing this would lead children to become “speshul snowflakes” that are unable to take criticism. That doesn’t happen because of too many compliments, it happens when parents don’t take the time to talk about their children’s mistakes and make them take responsibility for their behaviour. “Speshul snowflakes” develop because they are shielded from feeling anything negative.
Also, in order to help your child develop a positive vision of him or herself, it’s important that they experience their strengths and have places where they can go to feel good about themselves in social situations. When your kid is shy and afraid of social situations, it might be easy to let them stay by themselves in their room where they feel safe. Especially if they are being bullied. However, they still need to develop themselves and push past those experiences. Find places where they can feel good about themselves. Cooking classes, drawing classes, sports teams, debate clubs… When your child can meet kids who are like them, with whom they can be themselves but be social, they develop the skills to help inoculate them from being a bully. They get to know themselves and their strengths so that when they are being name-called, they don’t get affected by it because deep down inside of themselves, they know it’s not true because they know how well-liked they are by the people that matter. Bear in mind that the effect of team sports and clubs are exponentially more powerful than the effects of an individual sport. That’s because team sports and clubs help kids learn how to interact, make friends, and get good at something while having fun.
So let’s say that your child comes home crying, and WAS hurt by someone’s comments? What if they start to believe what they have been told? You know that what was said wasn’t true, that your child is so much more than what was said. How do you make sure that your child doesn’t end up creating “internal rules” like the young woman I spoke to today?
- Take the time to listen to your child’s feelings about what happened… Are they feeling sad? Guilty? Hurt? Angry? Feelings are important because they provide clues to the rules your child has that led him or her to feel the way they are. For example, if your child feels guilty, it might mean that they feel responsible for what happened and they are blaming themselves. So as a parent, you can tell them that you don’t agree with that and why, and reassure them that there are other reasons for the way they were being treated. You can teach them new internal rules, and encourage them to find examples that reinforce it.
- Avoid telling them that they shouldn’t feel that way. Instead, tell them that you understand how they came to feel that way, and that it’s normal. But that you don’t see things the same way and ask if you can share the way you see it.
- Help them find examples of times where they weren’t treated the way that they are – the exceptions.
- Ask them how they dealt with the bullying and highlight what they did well, what worked, and how it made them feel to succeed at that.
- Brainstorm ways to deal with the situation from now on – people who can help, things to say, where to go.
Finally, always remember that as a parent, it is not your job to always fix things for your child. That the fact that you listened, encouraged, supported and were there is often times more than enough. That your child will know that things might not get better right away, but that your presence as a safe base will make things a lot easier to deal with.