Parenting can feel like tricky business. There are so many pitfalls along the way to raising a healthy and functioning young adult. There are the big ones, of course, (drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, etc.) but there are so many other things a parent worries about, like: is he honest, is she compassionate, do they take pride in their work, are they happy? It can seem overwhelming to think of all the issues you have to tackle while raising a child. Where do you begin?
Fortunately, all of these concerns share one core value in common: self-esteem. Research shows a clear correlation between self-esteem and all of the above behaviors. Low self-esteem has been linked to higher dropout rates, greater risk for teen pregnancy, substance abuse and increased defiance. On the other hand, higher self-esteem is associated with better grades, more concern for others, stronger personal moral values, better health outcomes, and a generally happier and more optimistic outlook on life. Improve your child’s self-esteem and you improve her or his chances in all the areas that are important to you.
So, I bet I can guess the next question: how do I do that? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers and lifting low self-esteem is always harder than having built good self-esteem from the start. There are no guarantees and there are lots of factors not in your control but self-esteem is built on two cornerstones: acceptance and respect. If we have both of those for ourselves, we have self-esteem. As a parent, you can help your child build these two pillars.
Acceptance – This is that unconditional love that is given, not because you have earned it, but simply because you exist. If a parent can help a child identify their own inherent uniqueness and value it, that will go a long way toward building self-esteem. Is your child a gifted athlete? An artist? A comedian? Wildly creative? Pensive? Outgoing? Thoughtful? Empathic? A dreamer? The list can go on. Help your child find what s/he is naturally good at and give them chances to enjoy it. Also, acceptance is something you give your child no matter what choices s/he makes. If they know clearly that you love them no matter how foolish, impulsive, cruel or short-sighted they may be at times, that will go a long way toward building that self-love that is so critical.
Respect – This is equally as important as acceptance. Respect is not freely given. Rather it is earned through our contributions, behaviors and talents. On some level, your kids expect you to accept them but it will mean the world to them when they also see that you respect them. Give them opportunities to try things and succeed at them. This is why after school programs are so highly correlated with positive outcomes for teens. If a kid gets better at soccer, the trumpet, chess, tae kwon do, boy scouts, etc, they can see others’ respect for them growing and that grows their self-respect. There are many ways a child can earn your respect; just keeping their word, following a rule that was difficult or doing what you asked can all be opportunities for you to show your child s/he has earned some respect.
There are no easy cure alls to low self-esteem but the above qualities are the cornerstones to building it up. The formula is simple (Self-Respect + Self-Acceptance = Self-Esteem) even if actually doing it is not but, like all complex math, it comes through practice. So, now, like you are always telling your kids, it’s time to do your homework.