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I Think I Can!

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Of the numerous adults in a child’s life, parents are in the best position to offer their child encouragement and promote positive self-esteem—and it’s really not difficult.

In our psychotherapy practices, parents sometimes say their child is self-critical, easily frustrated, and frequently blames others for his shortcomings. They may describe their child as avoiding trying new activities. All of these concerns can indicate a child needs a boost in his self-esteem.

Encouragement promotes positive self-esteem. A child with positive self-esteem is more likely to act independently, assume responsibility, attempt new tasks, tolerate frustrations and demonstrate resilience.

In our practices, we suggest parents think of encouragement as a way to communicate feelings of confidence, faith and respect. Encouragement can be given for attempts, with success, or at times of failure. Here are some guidelines.
Reasonable struggles are good for children.
They help build “emotional muscle” or resilience. Don’t be too quick in offering a solution. Help your child explore her options, and give credit for attempts even if it didn’t work out well.

Generally it is best to learn from our own efforts. Don’t do for your child what he can do for himself. As a parent, think about what you can do to help your child operate more independently. For young children have accessible cups and small containers of milk, juice or water so they can pour their own drinks. Perhaps give them a small broom and certainly an undersized snow shovel.

Separate the “deed” from the “doer.” Place your emphasis on the task, not the result. Your child is always a valuable person. Failure indicates a lack of skill and in no way affects the basic value of your child. Help your child find the courage to be imperfect. Mistakes are human. As a parent, it can be helpful to admit your own imperfections.

Foster intrinsic satisfaction. Focus on how your child feels about his efforts or accomplishments as opposed to your own reaction. Say things like “You must feel good about working hard and doing well on your social studies test!” As a parent, you want a child to work hard and master tasks because he himself finds value in doing so, and not simply as a way of pleasing others, including you.

Take risks in giving responsibility to your child. Trust should be mutual, so give demonstrations of your confidence. You may need to break down a responsibility into several small steps. Teaching a 5-year-old child to safely cook scrambled eggs under your supervision is a great way for her to feel like a contributing family member who can provide breakfast (and start to learn to cook).

Look for “islands of competence.” Robert Brooks, Ph.D, author of The Self-Esteem Teacher (Treehaus; $16.95), uses this phrase to describe activities where a child uses his strengths. Parents can value, encourage and reinforce a child’s strengths. All of us build on our strengths, not our weaknesses.

Promote “I think I can” thinking in your child. Positive self-talk is a crucial skill for developing tenacity. Having the courage to try again in the face of failure isn’t easy. Parents can help by praising attempts and focusing less on the outcome.

Watching your child grow into a confident, resilient person is a great reward of parenting. Children of all ages respond to encouragement. Applying these guidelines to interactions with your child will help foster positive self-esteem—something you can both feel good about!

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of editorial@familytimes.biz. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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