By: Shannon Ralph
“I’ll never be good enough,” Sophie says as she frowns at the musical notes on the page. “I’m just stupid.”
These are words that can cut straight to the heart of any parent. Words that feel like a punch in the stomach, and can instantly take your breath away. No parent wants their child to feel stupid. To feel inferior. To feel like anything less than the amazing little people we know them to be.
My eight-year-old daughter recently started taking piano lessons. By recently, I mean that she has had all of three lessons. And already she is ready to give us. She tells me daily that she can’t do it. That it is too hard, despite her teacher’s accolades about how quickly she seems to be picking it up. If she hits one wrong note when practicing, she is ready to throw in the towel. To call it quits.
Unfortunately, piano lessons are not the only arena in which Sophie is so incredibly hard on herself. Though all of the kids at school like her, she says, “I have no friends.” Though she gets near-perfect grades, she says, “I’m stupid.” Though she is every bit as bright as her twin brother, she says, “I’ll never be as smart as Nicky.” And though she plays beautifully for an eight-year-old child who has had a total of 1½ hours of piano instruction, she says, “I’ll never be good at this.”
“Never” has become her mantra, and those are heart-wrenching words to hear from a young child.
Children like Sophie struggle with a lethal combination of low self-esteem and perfectionism. They hold themselves to a standard that is unrealistic and unattainable, and they punish themselves when they fall short. These kids see temporary set-backs as permanent conditions. As completely intolerable conditions, and, as a result, they become pessimistic. Sullen, even. They cannot or will not believe that a situation will improve. These feelings can make it very difficult for children to deal with challenges and problems that arise as they grow and develop. The only way out, in their eyes, is to quit. To quit Girl Scouts. To quit gymnastics. To quit piano.
So what is a parent to do?
According to Kidshealth.org, there are several ways that parents can help to foster healthy self-esteem in their children:
- Be careful what you say. We all tend to dote on our children—to praise them whether or not they truly deserve it. But, as we tell our children, honesty is the best policy. We should praise our children in a way that is true and honest. This means oftentimes praising children for their effort rather than the outcome. So she played a sour note on the piano? Don’t praise her by saying she played it beautifully—children are smart enough to know a lie when they hear it. Rather, praise her for trying again—for putting forth effort.
- Be a positive role model. I don’t know about you, but this can be a tough one for me. My daughter comes by her negative self-talk naturally. Self-esteem can be a real issue for adults as well as children, but we need to realize that our children will mirror our behavior. Our words. My daughter will internalize the way she hears me speak about myself. Think about the things you say to yourself on a daily basis. “God, I’m fat!” “Look at my thighs!” “I can’t be seen in public looking like this!” These words could very easily become your child’s inner voice.
- Identify and redirect inaccurate beliefs. It is vital as parents for us to stop our children when they profess inaccurate beliefs about themselves. When my daughter says, “I can’t do this. I’m stupid,” my job as a parent is to confront that irrational belief and help my daughter replace it with an accurate belief about her abilities. I can say something like, “Sophie, you’ve only had three lessons. It takes a lot of time to learn to play the piano well, but your teacher has said you are doing great and picking it up quickly. I have no doubt you will get better and better every week.”
- Be spontaneous and affectionate. We are big huggers and cuddlers in my house, so there is no lack of spontaneous affection up in here. Others may struggle with this, particularly as children get older. It is imperative, however, that our children know they are loved. Loving your child and showing her she is loved is the easiest way there is to boost your child’s self-esteem.
- Give positive, accurate feedback. As parents—particularly if you are a parent of a young child—we spend a great deal of time redirecting. This makes sense, as we are the primary molders and shapers of our young children. It is important that we give accurate feedback when we redirect our children. For example, it would not be helpful at all for me to say, “Sophie, calm down! Geez! You always get so upset every time you play the piano!” A better way to approach an imminent piano meltdown would be to say, “I know it’s very frustrating to hit a wrong note, but you’re doing a great job not giving up. Let’s try it one more time.” This is encouraging, while at the same time rewarding positive behavior (not giving up).
- Create a safe, loving home environment. This goes hand in hand with #4. Children who live in unsafe or abusive homes are at the greatest risk for developing low self-esteem. It’s important to note that a child does not have to be physically abused to feel unsafe at home. For example, if a child has parents who fight constantly, the child may feel unsafe. If a child lives in a household where parents involve their children in “adult” problems, children can feel unsafe. These feelings of insecurity can lead to helplessness and low self-esteem.
- Help kids become involved in constructive experiences. Children with low self-esteem tend to do better with activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition. Sophie, like many children with low self-esteem, is incredibly competitive. She is much harder on herself, however, if she does not win than children with healthy self-esteem. Volunteer activities are a great alternative for children with low self-esteem—mentoring younger children, volunteering at a local food shelf, cleaning up their local park, or raking leaves for elderly people on the block. Volunteering naturally makes a person feel better about themselves, and it empowers children to focus on their abilities rather than their faults.
As parents, we have a huge impact our children’s self-esteem. As they say in Marvel comics, “With great power comes great responsibility.” By using our influence in the right way, we can foster self-confidence in our children and help them grow into capable, resilient adults.
As for Sophie’s future as a concert pianist, well…that’s still up in the air.
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo