When a baby finds that her signals are validated and responded to appropriately—that troubles are soothed and pleasure enhanced—she begins to sense that her feelings, expressions, of her very being, are of value and important. A baby learns that she counts for something. This is the foundation of the development of self-esteem—a combination of who you are, how you feel about yourself, and what you think about your future potential.
Self-esteem takes root or withers depending on how you handle your child’s signals of fun—interest and enjoyment—and validating and attending to the signals for help—distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell.
As parents you are the most important people in your baby’s world. You provide your child with his first definitions of himself. You tell him through your every word, gesture, and action just how important he is and how he is perceived by the outside world.
Over the coming months and years, as your child matures and becomes an adult, his self-esteem will become a more complex web of interlocking emotions and thoughts about himself and about how he sees and is seen by others. It’s common for growing children and as well as adults to fluctuate between episodes of high and low self-esteem over the course of months or years. However, a solid foundation of self-esteem—built by appropriate responses to a child’s signals and nurtured throughout childhood—will help most people maintain a basically optimistic view of their lives and their future over the course of life’s ups and downs.
Your goal now, with your baby, is to help him develop a sense of himself that is reasonably solid and stable. As he grows, that will allow him to perceive his talents and abilities accurately, respond to life with flexibility, and look at his goals and capacities realistically.
Of course, the real key is loving the very essence of your child—loving and valuing the child for himself or herself, who he or she is. But this is often easier said than done—especially if the parents have not been loved and valued. Yet, understanding the nine signals can be useful here too: Much of the child’s essence is wrapped up in her interests and enjoyments; and understanding and attending to the negative signals can help prevent the cycles of frustration, hurt, and anger which can so contaminate the parent-child relationship and erode the child’s internal world.
The Foundation of Self-Esteem
From the first days of your baby’s life, you can lay the foundation for self-esteem by responding appropriately to your child’s signals for help (distress, anger, etc.) and fun (interest and enjoyment).
Many experts believe that another important building block of self-esteem involves a child’s experience of competence. Competence is initially achieved as a result of the brain’s capacity to create order out of the disorder of all the incoming stimuli. An infant’s inherent ability to develop competence lays the foundation for later, more sophisticated mastery of interaction with the world and people, which in turn may produce a sense of self-esteem. One part of this development, as a child grows, is learning that he is able to exert control over external events. Another, as he interacts with his environment, is learning how to adapt in a healthy way to the external world’s social requirements and expectations.
How to Help Your Child Build Self-Esteem
Focusing Appropriate Attention on the Child. Babies thrive when they feel they are of genuine interest to you and are the center of your universe. They use their nine signals to express their entire range of emotions. When a baby cries, or fusses, or coos, she expects you to react with as much enthusiasm or distress as she does about what is happening to her.
What parents sometimes forget is that to babies those reactions of distress are proportional to the situation. Not being able to get a hold of a ball that rolled into a corner is terrible! And your baby wants you to pay attention to him when he announces it in no uncertain terms. He finds himself incapable of righting the situation himself—no matter what he does, he’ll never be able to reach the ball. Talk about frustration! So he asks for your help in the only way he can—by making a scene. If that doesn’t elicit your sympathy and attention, if you don’t respond and help your baby out of his distress, he will begin to think that his problems don’t really matter, how he feels doesn’t count. Instead, if you take the opportunity to pay attention, validating and confirming his feelings and perceptions, you will help your child become confident.
Provide Reward and Praise. Along with paying attention, reward and praise from you are essential to child’s self-esteem. You must never forget how much your child wants to be like you and to be liked by you. Kids need to hear that you approve of them and think they are wonderful. They long to see the “gleam in your eye” that signals love and approval. You can’t assume they know how you feel. They don’t. They need to be told, over and over and over. In the long run, reward and praise tend to be better and healthier motivators than fear and shame. Of course, whenever you’re dealing with behavior, it is also important to explain to the child the pros and cons, the reasons and rationales, for whatever issue is at stake.
Offer Protection. If a child perceives the world as threatening or dangerous, it is almost impossible for her to feel brave and strong, to know that she can make her way through it successfully. But when you respond to your child’s negative signals of distress and anger by allowing expression of the signals and then removing the triggers, you have begun to give her the tools to deal with the world. When it comes to feeling confident, nothing helps a helpless baby like knowing she can depend on you to shield her from danger and distress.
How Self-Esteem is Damaged
Some parents inadvertently diminish their children’s self-esteem by interfering with or belittling their signals for interest and enjoyment. This triggers the automatic, built-in response of shame, and shame erodes self-esteem.
In my clinical practice, I frequently work with families in which both the parents and children have a variety of troubles related to a poor sense of self and self-esteem. The adults in these families often don’t understand how feelings and emotions work. The family ends up in a toxic situation because there is a mismatch between the child’s expression of emotional needs and the parent’s ability to respond appropriately. Often, then, the children fail to develop a solid sense of self—who they are, what they like and don’t like, a confidence in their perceptions and feelings, and so on. The resulting tension that develops between parent and child can contribute to the erosion of his self-esteem. The child may become angry, defensive, intolerant, and inflexible, or withdrawn, self-destructive, envious, and fearful. In fact, a whole variety of the less pleasing personality traits can be directly attributed to a person’s lack of belief in his own essential worth. Think bully. Think timid. Think depressed, depleted, and drained. These different qualities result, in part, from a lack of self-esteem.
The results of these kinds of parenting missteps can be heartbreaking. But the results of positive parenting are tremendous. You and your child are able to enjoy one another’s company, to delight in the deepening of your friendship. You gain access to the delightfully quirky way the world looks to a child. You learn as your baby learns. You gain confidence in your parenting skills; your self-esteem increases. Over time, you become ever more able to allow your child to grow into a unique, self-confident being. And because she has a solid sense of self, she will become capable of forming fulfilling relationships and of maintaining a healthy autonomy.
Copyright © 2005 Paul C. Holinger, M.D. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author:
Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., is the author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk (Published by Fireside/Simon & Schuster; August 2003; $14.00US/$22.00CAN; 0-7434-0667-2) Dr. Holinger is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has been working with children and adults for the last twenty-five years. He is Professor of Psychiatry at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center and is Training and Supervising Analyst at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He earned a Masters of Public Health from Harvard University School of Public Health and has held fellowships in both Psychiatric and Psychosocial Epidemiology. He is a reviewer for the American Journal of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, Psychoanalytical Psychology, along with the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, to name a few. Dr. Holinger resides in the Chicago, IL area.
For more information, please visit the author’s Web site www.paulcholinger.com