by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
A great deal of research has been conducted about what helps children develop a healthy self-esteem and not veer off into the extremes of depressive or sociopathic tendencies. You may have noticed that trends in advice seem to be well... trendy! You may feel like you can never fully depend on the advice you may be hearing on the topic of helping children develop appropriate self-esteem. We may run ourselves ragged getting material things, lessons, schools and socializing trying to make sure our child feels 'good enough' and finds and excels in his/her niche early and easily. But what really is 'authentic' self-esteem in children, and how can adults help?
Now we are saying 'authentic' self-esteem. This may be somewhat different from the conception of 'healthy' self-esteem depending on your perspective or interpretation of a child's behavior, attitude or affect (mood).
For example, our educational system appears to make an effort to 'equalize' children so everyone can feel special. Gone are the days of the 'smart kid' and the 'dumb kid' classes. In children's sports, the same is true. Everyone gets a trophy whether they were any good or not, whether they even got off the bench, or whether the team made a single score all season.
Children realize that the world is competitive, yet everyone is getting a trophy or a particular reward. Even the worst player on the team gets the same reward as everyone else, so maybe it doesn't mean much. If it doesn't mean much, then do I have my self-esteem stimulated by receiving it?
While this seems like a good idea, let's be honest, kids are imitating adults. They know exactly what is going on. There is only one winner in sports and all types of competition. One person gets the job, the award, the promotion. In real life, everyone is not going to get a particular reward, but we as adults seem to persist in this fashion, perhaps so children will have a kinder, gentler place to grow up. Adults may believe in vain that this method will help children develop 'healthy' self-esteem.
We submit to you that children are wise and know exactly what is going on. They are not going to be able to utilize these false mechanisms so that they can magically develop authentic self-esteem. The self will not be fooled.
Adults pursue this method of helping children develop self-esteem in good faith... so the super excellers don't get all the attention and praise, and everyone has an equal shot at feeling good about themselves. But the children know it's not real. Children understand a natural or biological pecking order which is based on prowess, strength, beauty, intelligence, verbal skills, talent, socio-economic factors and most importantly Actual Accomplishments.
While some of the factors just mentioned are largely outside the control of the individual (some things you're just born with), the concept of Actual Accomplishments is completely within in the control of the individual and leads to the development of Authentic Self-Esteem and healthy personality structure.
Children should not learn that you don't need to exert hard and continuous effort to get rewarded by life - this 3D reality that we currently live in - that we can get what we want by complaining, demanding, expecting, lazing around, having tantrums or being too dependent for our stage in the lifespan. We worry that children are learning that it's not worth it to try too hard. And that other people are responsible for most things, even my own behavior. Lavish rewards are ubiquitous and continuous. This practice leads to the child's loss of self-efficacy (being able to do things by myself) and trust in you (because children know 'the jig is up') - paradoxically the opposite of what is intended.
Taking it a step further, we certainly don't want children as they become teenagers to become entitled and demanding whether or not they have actually contributed to anything, while parents are continuing to run themselves ragged. Don't you hate when that happens... when children become entitled and unappreciative? And turn into tyrants? As a parent, this can really hurt Our self-esteem!
So back to the original question, How Does a Parent Help a Child Develop Authentic Self-Esteem?
The following parenting attributes have been associated with a child’s high self-esteem:
1. Mutual expression of verbal and physical affection. Don't be afraid to hug and kiss and say "I love you, I'm proud of you. You are a very special person." The child receives love and validation just because s/he exists, not dependent on any performance or attribute. Demonstrate your affection by giving attention and listening without interrupting, teaching or judging. Choose to demonstrate authentic love to a child by giving your attention. You can say "I love you" all day, but if you are interrupting, criticizing, blaming, teaching, disciplining... the child learns to feel bad about her/himself - ashamed and guilty - the opposite of self-esteem. (We're all familiar with those feelings, correct?)
2. Parent is concerned about the child's problems. Be patient and keep a balance with letting the child struggle to accomplish things for himself. When a child has a problem, task or goal and feels confident and motivated to handle it by her/himself, or when he feels respected by parent, teacher or peer to handle things, this is authentic self-esteem. And her/his parent is standing by giving attention as an observer to provide support if needed, but not interfering, teaching, guiding, or taking control. The parent is wise enough to be excruciatingly patient and let the child struggle to accomplish things for her/himself. In this way the child learns to reach for higher and higher achievements and goals, perpetuating a feedback loop in which the environment itself rewards the child on a reliable basis. This is Authentic Self Esteem.
3. Harmony in the home. Adults must learn and model self-control and communication skills in order to create a peaceful and safe environment free of fighting, intrusive behaviors, media that is not age appropriate, and/or substance abuse. Being exposed to trauma in the home is very detrimental to self-efficacy and self-esteem as the child learns to feel afraid, helpless and out of control.
4. Participation in joint family activities. Parents and children participate regularly together with or without other families. Make sure these activities are focused on something besides electronics and have a positive focus.
5. Parent available to give competent, organized help when needed. (First, this means that the parent knows how to be competent and organized! lol) Parents can sometimes be too frazzled or preoccupied to help much. This is not a good thing. Try to be calm and organized, and remember to avoid doing things that the child is learning to do her/himself because you're in a hurry.
6. Clear and fair rules are established. Rules should be discussed in a family meeting and posted on the fridge. Everyone should be allowed to contribute ideas to the rule-making, although parents make the final decision as to what goes on the rules list. A new generation of children may have valuable input as to the family they would like to live in.
7. Everyone follows the rules. For example... Parents are not allowed to call each other names either!
8. Let children have freedom within limits that have been clearly explained. Make sure expectations are clearly understood and thank children when they have done a good job. Don't look for things to criticize. Also make sure that fair, reasonable and age appropriate consequences are understood and implemented consistently without excessive emotionality. (Talk to a therapist if you need a discipline plan, or to understand and implement age-appropriate consequences.) A child feels good about her/himself when he understands parameters that are consistently present.
For children, being able to do things by themselves and feeling skilled and competent is an important developmental process leading to authentic self-esteem. Children should be encouraged to identify and develop talents and interests so they can authentically feel good, and start to fulfill their purpose early.
by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
When parents and teens are having stresses conflicts and fundamental disagreements, I often (not always) recommend parent-teen sessions rather than making the teen the identified patient and, 'putting the teen in therapy.' Working with members of a family together can help improve communication and a sense of belonging, not someone being singled out as the problem. Being heard, valued and connected strengthens the family system for everyone.
What happens in a family therapy session?
Usually the most talkative person starts first. (Haha!) Normally I ask each person about the problem from their point of view. Each person gets a chance to talk without being interrupted or disrespected. When people come to a session for the first time, some are a little nervous, others are ready to start talking right away. So it can be helpful to let the person who is most comfortable, tell about the problems first. This may often be the parent. But sometimes teens need to be listened to, and they may want to talk first.
We May Adopt a Three Part Process for Brief Therapy:
1. Knowledge - We have to know and understand what the other person is thinking and feeling; what they want and why. Of course, we have to know what we ourselves honestly want and need. We may have to work through a few layers to gain this knowledge about what is going on from everyone's perspective. We may also have to learn about developmental tasks and stages and life span development of the family.
2. Strategy - Once we know what's going on, we need to develop a strategy for helping each other get what they need and feel good in the process. This usually involves communication and relational skills practice, scripting, appreciation, affirmative focus and possible implementation of behavioral reinforcement techniques.
3. Execution - We have to put a loose plan into action. This need not be an onerous assignment, but we may have to start exercising a certain amount of self-discipline or re-direction if things have gotten out of control in our relatinohips. We may need to stop calling people names. We may need to learn to come in contact with the truth and learn to tell the truth more often. We will have to put into practice strategies about what we learn.
Returning to the first session again, while one person is talking, the other people in the session are practicing a few things. How to practice active, reflective listening and how not to become defensive and start engaging in the normal attack-counter attack scenario. We are going to have to re-learn certain communication habits in order to improve relationships, and therefore the overall well-being of family members.
We will also practice other techniques such as reflecting content and feeling. Also how not to become abusive or disrespectful and what to do if that happens. Parents and teens will learn to express disagreement constructively and negotiate changing roles having to do with the process of the teen's individuation into adulthood.
We are available after school and on Saturdays. Contact us, we can help!
by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
"The world revolves around me, make me feel safe!"
To develop optimally, an infant needs to live in an atmosphere of trust. This means a feeling of physical comfort and a minimal amount of fear about getting needs met. In other words, we don't want the baby to be wondering, "If I cry out for Mom, will she come and be mad or anxious?" "Or not come at all?"
It is important for the infant to learn that if he cries because he is hungry or wet, or maybe has a tummy ache or fever, or is just lonely and bored, a responsive and sensitive caregiver comes along quickly with a pleasant attitude to help. This promotes trust.
If I am a baby, I'm thinking, "Everything is okay here, I'm safe and there's someone to hold me when I feel like it. Hey, and definitely help me out if I'm wet or cold or hot or hungry or overstimulated!" "Oh, and do something to keep me entertained… but not too much, okay?"
Doing the physical things to make a baby feel safe is pretty self-explanatory. However, if you are in a stressed-out world of your own, with work, other kids maybe, in-laws, money issues, fighting with your spouse, it may be hard to be emotionally present and responsive the way you would like.
Needless to say, if parents are fighting in the next room, this does not lead to a baby developing a sense of trust and solid attachment. This is not to make you feel guilty, but to suggest adjusting your behavior if you're doing this. Fighting within earshot of infants should be avoided even if you think they can't understand. Their physiology is affected and it causes stress. Exposure to this type of stimulus has been shown to cause changes in the brain. Need I say more?
Don't forget your vibe. Infants are expert at picking up a tone of voice or body posture or facial expression and having emotional responses. Learn to compartmentalize and focus on enjoying what you are doing in the moment. I like to do a symbolic gesture of locking my 'troubles' in the car. Why not set whatever crisis of the moment aside before coming into the house to interact with your family?
Try not to be overcommitted with activities at this time, you and your partner are going through a developmental phase of your own. Becoming parents and raising a family is a huge adjustment in and of itself, and the relationship needs time and attention.
by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
“Stop playing! Get to work!”
Has anyone given this message to her children?
“Get busy! Do something productive!”
In this article, we will explore the importance of free, child-directed play as an aspect of development, and understand a few things about the different kinds of play…
…Because everything is about play and fantasy when you’re a child, right? Even when you’re an adult too, but that’s another subject…
We can observe play behaviors in our infants soon after birth. The moment the swaddling is off, the newborn’s arms are flailing about trying to figure out how to get fingers in mouth while living in air instead of amniotic fluid.
She knows there is no milk in her fingers. She is playing.
Both solitary and interactive play evolve into abilities we need to be fulfilled in life. If play is advertently or deliberately suppressed, there can be difficulties in interpersonal relationships and achievement later on.
Here are things to know about play:
1. Solitary Play
The first type of play you may notice in your baby is solitary play. Infants will play with anything in their environment as well as their body parts. Fingers and toes are favorite playthings at the beginning of life. Infants may be happy staying alone in their cribs playing with their voices, their bodies or anything in their environment.
To facilitate solitary play, it’s fine to leave the baby in her crib or play pen as long as she’s not distressed. Some babies, when feeling securely attached, will stay in their cribs singing and fiddling around, rolling or whatever for long periods of time. It’s good to let her have quiet time as long as she’s not getting distressed.
Accidental ways of interrupting development of solitary play:
1) media such as television, radio, computer
2) arguing within earshot
3) too much rushing around
4) emotional tension
5) too many toys
Believe it or not, solitary play development in infancy and childhood helps people be able to work independently later on.
In the next article we will explore the next play skill: Onlooker Play
by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
It can be enough to drive a parent nuts, when a kid for no good or apparent reason, decides not to go to school. I have noticed a few reasons why kids don't want to go to school even with our beautiful schools in Manhattan Beach and the South Bay. And several things parents can do to help. Trying different ways of looking at situations, and getting rid of shame and blame is a good way to start.
Here are a few things your child might want to tell you:
1. "I'm afraid to be away from Mommy and Daddy. "
When a young child doesn't want to go to school, he may be afraid to be separated from you right now. He may be feeling less secure in his attachment. This is often due to recent changes in relationships or stressful problems that may have come up for the family. If the child is hearing fighting in the evening or sensing an atmosphere of anger, tension or anxiety, he may wake up afraid to be separated from you. There's a sense that something bad might happen, or I might never see them again, and who will take care of me... if I go away from my parents. Learn more about separation anxiety.
1. When you have a quiet moment with your child (not when it's time to go to school), ask him something like "I notice you have been having a hard time going to school in the morning lately, can you tell me about that?"
Then whatever he says, let him talk and encourage him to continue telling you about it. Please avoid statements like: "You know you have to go to school!" "Everybody has to go to school!" "It's time for you to grow up now, stop being a baby!" "I can get in trouble with the police if you don't go to school!" Avoid all these types of statements. Try not to teach him anything in this moment. This is a listening moment not a teaching moment.
Instead, focus on the child and his process. Let him talk. Ask him to draw a picture about it, or put on a costume and act out something about it. Realize that young children are fantasy- driven. Their play themes demonstrate what's on their minds in a metaphorical sense and conflicts and challenges are worked out in play.
This doesn't mean that you are going to let him not go to school! It just means that you are slowing things down and understanding. Once he has thoroughly blown off steam about it, you will find him more willing to separate from you the next day. If you are trying to force or reason with him, it's probably not going to work.
2. Engage in child-directed play, 20 minutes a day (floor time)
Get on the floor with your child and let him be the director. (I don't mean sitting in front of the TV together.) Let him direct the play scenario. Sit, give him your undivided attention, observe his play, participate, but let the child lead. Follow along, or shadow him in his play themes. This helps the child develop a sense of competence and self-worth. He is learning that he is important to you. If you do this consistently, it should help in the mornings and save you from hours of dealing with tantrums.
Other problems leading to school refusal:
2. "The kids are mean."
Again, facilitate your child's expression, Let him talk about it. Try not to blame anyone or tell your child it's his fault, or not his fault, this leads to anxiety, fear and blame. Teach the child to identify and express how he feels. For example, I feel mad, scared, afraid, embarrassed... really, really mad. Have him draw pictures. Act out a play about it. Obviously, intervene with teachers as appropriate and never engage another child directly.
3. "I have a tummyache... I have a headache..."
Be aware that children will often complain about physical issues when they are feeling anxious or depressed. Realize that children understand their vulnerability, and if adults are acting unpredictably or have mean faces or loud voices, children experience a physiological fear reaction which results in emotional and behavioral manifestations. Helping the child release his emotional stress in an appropriate or creative way is the goal.
Try the floor time, and if you're still having a problem with your child refusing to go to school, come in and let's talk about it!