Kids and Self Esteem: The Real Deal

What parent doesn’t want their kid to feel good about themselves? If I see that commercial one more time, with the little kid batting the ball saying: “I am the best hitter in the world!” or , “I am the best pitcher in the world!”, with the ‘happy soundtrack’ in the background, (what is that “Celebration”?!) one more time, I think I will explode.

The catch line for the commercial is: “That’s OPTIMISM!” I shake my head muttering “No, that’s delusional!”
Call me a bad parent, or an a-hole. All I think is that chances this kid is the best pitcher in the world and can keep thinking and saying that to himself, is such a set up for the day he throws down his glove and stomps off the field because he couldn’t hit the ball, he feels like crap and won’t go back, because he isn’t “the best pitcher”.

Now I know this commercial is trying to promote the idea of OPTIMISM. Okay, so maybe I am being a little ‘concrete’ and overly dramatic in my reaction, but as a therapist who basically spends most of her hours teaching people HOW TO NAVIGATE FEELING LOUSY WITHOUT DOING SOMETHING THAT REINFORCES THEIR BELIEF THAT THEY ARE CRAP, I take issue with this idea that optimism is about being THE BEST. Is that the only way ‘WE CAN?’ More importantly, what kind of set up is this for our kids to think they have to “BE THE BEST”? How many kids are truly going to BE THE BEST? What kind of perfectionism are we promoting? What happens when they can’t THINK they are the best, because they aren’t doing very well that day, that season or simply aren’t actually stellar at that particular activity?

Most of the emphasis seems to be on WINNING. We do live in an ‘uber-‘competitive culture, and we sure do need to learn how to work hard in order to not just compete, but function well at anything. There is way too much focus on the win, and too little on any kind of process. Ironically, in sports, this idea of ‘showing up’ is built into the structure of training and is the discipline.
But what if your kid doesn’t do a sport or any activity that involves structured training? How do you as a parent help give your kid the skills to DO THEIR BEST, which involves trying over and over and over?! (And feeling like you are failing, or feeling frustrated, over and over and over!!!)
So, I offer up some quick tips on helping your kids build self esteem and cope with reality: (The good and the bad). I call it “Skill Training on Being Human 101”

1) IT IS NORMAL to have strengths and weaknesses in all ways.

2) It is NORMAL to feel great about some parts of yourself, and not about others

3) It is NORMAL to feel badly about these parts, or how you have done at times.

4) It is NORMAL to feel anxious, sad, frustrated, bad, insecure, envious, angry, competitive, etc.

5) It is NORMAL to feel ambivalent; two feelings that seem opposite about the same thing: every decision has its bad aspects no matter how good.

Teaching ourselves and our kids to roll with the BAD without getting stuck in it, or getting stuck in behaviors that reinforce the feeling: “I suck” involves the following:

1) Identify the feeling and the negative thoughts that result.

2) Know that feeling states shade thinking, similarly to how the cloud passing over the sun makes things dark. That doesn’t mean the sun went away and the cloud will pass. This is a mood, but it is dark and can feel like the sun will never shine again. IT FEELS DARK DOESN’T MEAN IT IS DARK. THE SUN IS STILL THERE, REMEMBER?

3) Feelings pass. The intensity of feelings shift and it will not be a 10 an hour later, or the next day. Might be 2, or even a 0.

4) When the feeling and intensity dies down, you can think straight and use judgment to problem solve.

5) Give yourself time to let the feeling shift. Set a timer. Distract yourself with things that don’t reinforce the negative. Stick with the feelings use behaviors to help you live with them, or soothe them, not take them away. (Food, drugs, alcohol, anything excessively that is being used to avoid bad feelings all the time just reinforces a belief that you don’t have a right to feel good about yourself. Results that then lend credence to the negative thinking about yourself: i.e. “I am a loser, I have no control”, “I am fat, ugly, awful, etc.feed proof to the insecurity.

6) Give yourself space and time to feel. Give your kid space to let the intensity die down. IF they want you close fine, but don’t get stuck if they are passing the hot potato of the negativity by blaming you. Kids do this a lot and can be part of developing. Help them learn though how to identify their feelings and take responsibility for them after the intensity dies down.

Few are THE BEST at anything. Let’s give ourselves and our kids a nice ‘matter of fact’ attitude toward living that is the scaffolding to TRYING OURS AND THEIR HARDEST. Showing up. Putting one foot in front of the other despite how you feel. Over and over.

That is what builds competence, confidence, self esteem, and, dare I say, ‘real life’ optimism.

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One Response to “Kids and Self Esteem: The Real Deal”

  1. Valerie Lincourt on 23 Sep 2009 at 8:59 am

    Thank you for the honest words that we as parents need to hear while our kids are still young enough to benefit from the shift in thinking! I try to avoid the extreme words altogether (positive or negative) and focus on giving them positive adjectives about themselves and the things they do. I must tell them a hundred times a day that something was terrific, fantastic, wonderful, etc. We are still in the toddler stage here, and I want my girls to feel good about themselves and the things they attempt to do. That being said, we also recognize when things are unacceptable and wrong. But when the world throws crap their way, I want them to know that at least Mom thinks they are fabulous. I would love to see them grow up with strong self esteem without the arrogance attached. Thank you for detailing how to handle the bad stuff without internalizing feelings and letting those moments define us.

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