Everyone perceives themselves in a certain way: talented, lazy, smart, beautiful, egotistical, funny, etc. Our collection of traits affects our self-image.
In addition, each one of us has their ‘ideal me’ – representing who we want to be. We all compare ourselves to our ideal me.
A person with high self-esteem, will have a self-image that is very similar to their ideal self; a person with low self-esteem, will have a significant gap between the two.
It is evident that both the self-esteem and the ideal self are subjective concepts, therefore a child (or adult) may have higher than average abilities, that is, they may be very successful objectively, but their subjective experience is that of failure (i.e. low self-esteem), due to a significant disparity between their actual abilities and their overly high ideal self.
Self-esteem is formed out of three elements:
Reflection – when a child is born, their parents and close figure reflect their traits. Of course, it’s usually the positive traits – “you’re so beautiful “, “you’re so smart!”, “look what she/he did!” and so on. When a child is positively reinforced over and over in a particular field they are likely to have a high self-esteem in that particular area.
Of course, reflecting the child’s positive qualities is important, but it is not advisable to compliment them for qualities and traits they don’t actually have. Since that when the child grows up and goes to kindergarten and school, people around them will “grade” what they are and what they do. If they discover significant discrepancy between reflections ‘outside’ and reflections at home, the child may become extremely frustrated and may stop trusting their parents.
Social comparison – starting at school age children compare themselves to their peers. Children who have acquired high self-esteem during their first six years of life will be less susceptible to social whims and will have a good perception of their abilities even if society tries to convey a slightly different message. On the other hand, a child with low self-confidence will be easily influenced by their peers, and this will increase during adolescence: if their peers will say that they are beautiful, or a good friend, or smart, their self-confidence will increase, but if their peers will tell them they are stupid or a ‘loser’, their self-confidence will decreased drastically. Therefore, children who experience rejection by peers day after day, and fail to create stable social relationships without the support of an adult, may develop low self-esteem, which may later bring about various issues such as: social anxiety, depression, anxiety and more.
Capability – capability is simply the ability to succeed. A child with high capabilities can gain more successes during their life, thus increasing their self-image. In fact, they would be in a sort of loop of successes and positive reinforcement. On the other hand, a child who experiences failures may attribute them to their capabilities, thus their self-esteem will be compromised (even if their capabilities are high, but still do not satisfy their expectations). This negative vicious cycle is often the fate of children experiencing difficulties with social skills, ADHD and learning disabilities. Richard Lavoie, in his lecture ” When the Chips Are Down” (a lecture about children with learning disabilities, but I recommend it for any parent and teacher), describes children’s self-image as a pile of poker chips with which a player enters the game. The chips represent successes, positive reinforcement from significant figures, as well as a warm, sympathetic and accepting attitude that conveys a message to the child that they are loved and appreciated regardless of specific performance. If a child has many chips, they may “gamble”, namely enter the game even if they are not sure they will succeed. A child whose self-image is low will refrain from many educational and social situations, since they do not have enough chips, and they cannot afford to waste them by gambling; Since they rarely try, their chances of succeeding diminish, and their chances of accumulating successes and reinforcements that later serve as chips for future progress diminish as well. Lavoie emphasizes his stance that it is our responsibility as parents and teachers to ensure that children face the world with as many chips as possible.
How can we enhance children’s self-confidence?
Self-esteem is developed during childhood by parents, caretakers and society and therefore it is important that parents and other close figures be active partners in this matter.
- Create an atmosphere of acceptance when raising ideas – try to share your decisions with your children, let them come up with ideas of their own and listen to them with love and enthusiasm. This will provide them with a good experience and will reinforce their self-image.
- Reinforcements – children must be reinforced for day-to-day things they do. Don’t wait for a special occasion, something exceptional or a good report card. You can find at least one thing your child did properly, or a small improvement in their behavior or performance, every day.
Try to remember one positive experience from your childhood, which made you feel particularly good about yourselves, and that had to do with an adult. Let this memory guide you when communicating with your children or students.
- Success depends on me – instill your child with the notion that their successes depend entirely on them, that is, their abilities. Children with high self-esteem partake in many endeavors and experience successes in a variety of fields, under different circumstances. Thus they conclude that their success depends not only on the circumstances, but mainly on them. Encourage your children to praise themselves (“I’m a genius”, “I’m strong”, “I’m great”). Self-praise is neither audacity nor exaggeration. It is important that they get accustomed to giving themselves positive feedbacks. A child who is able to reinforce themself on their successes will not need to be reinforced by anyone else in the future. On the other hand, children with low self-esteem usually attribute their successes to luck or chance (“This test was easy”, “I was lucky this time” etc.). It is important that you talk to your child and identify their cognitive distortions in these situations in order to allow them to examine and refute these distortions because the child’s success depends on them, even if the test was easy! Children must be conveyed a message that the abilities are within them and the successes are theirs.
- Any failure is a basis for growth – a child with high self-confidence will know how to turn a mistake into an experience to learn from, and any failure into an opportunity to grow. On the other hand, a child with low self-confidence will say that they have lost again and will then have further proof that they are unsuccessful. These children believe that error is the result of conditions that cannot be easily changed, namely that they are incapable and therefore fail over and over again. It is important to convey a message to them that every failure can serve a basis for growth.
For example, a child who has passed obtained a score of 80 on a test may be disappointed for not obtaining 100 as they expected (perhaps they studied hard, and maybe they finished the test feeling good and optimistic which does not correlate with this outcome). It is important to see what was the mistake, and then to commend their ability to understand the mistake and learn from it, and even to note that the ability to learn from mistakes is as important in life as being able to memorize the multiplication table (if that was the case).
- An island of success – in his book Seeds of Self-Esteem, Dr. Robert Brooks says that each of us has one major area of strength. It is very important to give your child the opportunity to express their strengths, since the reinforcement they receive from the environment will enhance their self-image. Ask a child who’s good at drawing to draw a picture for you, and hang it at home, in the classroom, or in the school hallway. this child who is has a hard time at school, will see a teachers passing through the hallway and admiring their drawing or their grandmother coming to visit and being impressed and praising their drawing hung up in the living room.
Create Successes – provide your children with opportunities for success. A child with a low self-image tends to see the world in a negative perspective: “I can’t do anything right”; “I’ll never be successful” etc. Think about how to create situations that will highlight the strengths of such a child, and how to let them experience success both with the family and at school. Praise them for their success and make sure they praise themselves. When they reinforce themselves, encourage them to keep doing so.
- Role models, models and actors – These days, with the media around us, children perceive celebrities as role models. However, out of commercial interests, the media exposes mainly the strengths of these people, and therefore presents children with high and unrealistic (“ideal self”) standards of beauty, talent and success. It is important to explain to children that they see only one of many facets of these people, and they probably have less successful sides as well. It is important to clarify that a famous person’s ideal image does not reflect reality, since the false standards it presents create a huge discrepancy between the celebrity and the abilities and successes of the average child, thus harming their self-image.
- Facebook / Instagram / Whatsapp – A child’s self-image relies also on the number of friends they have on Facebook, the number of followers on Instagram and the number of “Likes” they get for their uploaded videos or pictures. Explain to your child that you understand that a significant part of their social world is in fact in the virtual world, but it is still not a criterion for social success and healthy social relationships. It is possible for a child to have a small number of followers on Instagram, but in reality, feel loved at school, and vice versa. Self-image is often less influenced by the number of Likes or friends, and more by the quality of relationships. A child who has one or two good friends with a stable and steadfast relationship will probably have a higher self-image than a child who gets a lot of Likes and reinforcements in the digital media, but has no stable relationships to rely on.
- Appreciation based on effort and not on results – the amount of investment and effort depends on the child, but not the result. Praise your child for their efforts in work / tests / play / with friends. The result does not always depend on them; it is most probable that often there are other factors that affect results. Even if they didn’t win the soccer game, as far as you are concerned your child did the best they can, and improved their skills. If you reinforce them, they will be able to get over losing and participate in a match again – in which they may win this time. It’s a very competitive world out there. As early as the lower grades competition is everywhere, comparing grades, etc. Competitiveness can indeed increase motivation, but not for everyone, and certainly not for young children. Try to create a pleasant atmosphere with an emphasis on personal achievement and no competitiveness. Children should improve their achievements versus themselves rather than compared with others. Thus, they have better chances of achieving their personal potential and increasing their confidence in their abilities.
- Developing responsibility and contribution – Children love and need to develop a sense of responsibility and the ability to contribute to their close environment. This greatly improves their sense of belonging, their motivation for cooperation, and their self-image. Children who have a personal responsibility at school or at home will also develop their sense of belonging to the school or family, and will reinforce their self-image with their teachers, classmates, or family. Child starting at of 4 should have something for which they are responsible so that they may feel they contribute to the family. Of course, the responsibility must be appropriate for the child’s age. It has been proven that children who have been given responsibility at a young age have developed high self-esteem, achieved more, and demonstrated high motivation.
- Choosing between two options – The sense of choice facilitates a sense of control, which in turn reinforces self-esteem and the will for cooperation. When children feel they are given choices, they become partners rather than objectors. Giving them a choice makes them feel that we treat them as adults and with respect; this feeling reinforces self-image.
Haim Valder, writer, taken from “Behind the Mask”:
“Each person, in addition to their personality, has an image – the way they are perceived by people around them.
Since people find it difficult to improve their personality, some focus on the easy way – their image. Improving your image – is fine, it’s like putting on more suitable clothes. But when one concentrates only on image, they spend their days and nights cultivating an external element instead of cultivating themselves.
A person’s personality can withstand difficulties, pain, physical and mental torture, but a person’s image is like a balloon. It takes a just small pin for everything to collapse. Everything they worked on for is lost in seconds.
A person must constantly remember to cultivate their personality. In some cases, they may also cultivate their image, but they must remember at all times that it is a mask and not the actual thing”.