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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Foundation of Self-Esteem
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).
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.
to Help Your Child Build Self-Esteem
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.
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
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.
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.
Self-Esteem is Damaged
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.
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.
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.
©2005 Paul C. Holinger, M.D.
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,
more information, please visit the author’s
Web site www.paulcholinger.com