QUESTION: I often hear about the importance of boosting a child's self-esteem. But how can I accomplish that with my son without making him self-absorbed or self-centered?
JIM: Instilling a sense of self-esteem in children is a critical task for parents. And you're right -- there's a big difference between healthy self-esteem and destructive selfishness. Like you, many moms and dads find themselves asking how to find the right balance.
Dr. Kevin Leman, a frequent Focus on the Family broadcast guest, suggests that parents can cultivate healthy self-esteem in their kids by learning "the A-B-Cs."
The letter A stands for acceptance. We might not always approve of our children's choices or behavior, but we always need to let them know that we love and accept them unconditionally. In other words, you can tell your son that playing video games for six hours a day is unacceptable. But don't give him the impression that (BEGIN ITALS)he(END ITALS) is therefore unacceptable.
The letter B stands for (BEGIN ITALS)belonging(END ITALS). We can give our kids a sense of belonging by creating a sense of community within the family. It's important that we give our sons and daughters a voice in family decisions when appropriate, that we listen to what they have to say, and that we support them in their activities.
Finally, the letter C stands for (BEGIN ITALS)competence(END ITALS). We can give our children the gift of competence by allowing them to experience life firsthand. This means we need to avoid being overprotective. And we should fight the urge to do for our kids what they can do for themselves. Even when they make mistakes, they'll be gaining life experience that will boost their sense of self-worth in the long run.
Acceptance, belonging and confidence ... if we can instill these A-B-Cs in our kids' hearts and minds, we'll be setting them on the road to healthy self-esteem.
Q: Every now and then, my 5-year-old daughter cries (usually when she doesn't get her way) and says things like, "Nobody loves me!" My family has a history of depression, and I wonder if my daughter's behavior is normal or if it is a sign that she is depressed.
Juli: You are wise to be sensitive to signs of depression in your daughter. However, the behavior you are describing sounds like a normal 5-year-old reaction. Children are not as sophisticated in muting their feelings as we are as adults. That's why they are so much fun to be with! Within a 10-minute span, they can experience elation and devastation, feel love and hatred, and think you are both the best mom and the worst mom in the world.
Even so, a 5-year-old can be depressed, and it's good to know what to look for. If your daughter were depressed, her feelings would be less situational. In other words, she would be down, expressing sad feelings even when good things are happening around her. You might also notice changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Depressed children sometimes withdraw, get panicky, and lose interest in things they used to enjoy. If you consistently notice these symptoms in your daughter, seek help from a professional counselor or her pediatrician.
You also want to be careful not to overreact when your daughter displays negative emotions throughout the normal course of daily life. If you go overboard with consolation and comfort when she makes statements like, "Nobody loves me!" you may reinforce that behavior. She needs a steady supply of love and affection from you, not just when she is showing negative emotion.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.
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