My son has low self esteem. He’s eight. I always try to tell him how well he does things yet he does not believe me. He constantly thinks he has to do everything perfect the first time and melts down if he doesn’t. Do you have any solutions or recommend any good books I can read about this? Please help. Thanks, Dave.
Hello Dave, The first thing that might make you feel better is that 6 – 9 year old children commonly rub things out and start again, so much so, that amongst many parents it’s fondly termed the ‘eraser age.’ If the behaviour seems to you to be excessive then the first thing I would do is to try and draw attention away from it. Children do things for a reason and usually they get something out of it that makes the behaviour worth continuing. It’s what I spend a lot of my time explaining to parents and helping them deal with through the various services that I offer.
Realize that too much praise can backfire
Start trying to look at when and how you praise your son. If you praise too often and for really unremarkable stuff, you actually end up instead creating a lot of attention seeking behaviour inadvertently. I’ll give you an example. Let’s pretend your son is engaged in an activity. You interrupt to praise him. He enjoys the praise (who wouldn’t). He would like more of it, so if these interruptions happen on a regular basis, he subconsciously looks for ways of getting more of the same. He soon figures out that if he engages in self-criticism, like any well meaning parent, you will likely rush over and take the time and effort to assure him that what he’s done is not worthy of his harsh critique.
Over time, the constant self-criticism becomes a habit and he genuinely starts to believe that what he’s doing isn’t any good. Now he’s no longer doing whatever it is he’s doing for the innate worth the activity holds but instead to get positive feelings from you. You have become the arbitrator of what is worthy and what isn’t.
Now you’ll probably say that he’s the one that wants to erase the work and not you and yes, that would be expected. He no longer feels confident of his own judgment and so it’s easier simply to start again. Being unable to really do the activity any better the next time will create feelings of frustration and failure, which is probably where the melt downs are coming from.
Teach him to trust himself
So what to do? In my view, probably the best solution is to take all the attention that he’s used to getting for this behavior, away. In order to get him to learn to trust himself, he must stop looking toward you. The only way to accomplish that is to withdraw your attention from his constant worrying. This may sound harsh because when you stop providing support, it will precipitate melt downs. Your child will feel uncomfortable in coming to terms with his feelings and when you withdraw your attention, for a while, will not know what to do. For your part, you need offer your attention only long enough to guide him in the right direction and ensure that he knows that you trust him to make his own decision about the worthiness of his efforts. You can mention that you think it’s fine but don’t overdo it. Don’t gush and if he decides to tear it up and start again, make no comment and stay as cheerful as you can.
Make sure that you only praise for things that are really worthy of praise. If at any point you notice him calmly look at his efforts, then you can certainly engage him but avoid validating or not validating his efforts and ask questions instead. Questions like “Is it a windy day in your picture?” “How does your horse feel in that wind?” Chatting about his picture when he comes to you and is calm, is fine. If you refuse to give attention to the outbursts or uncertainty about his efforts, the behaviour will eventually cease and he will learn to trust his own judgment.
As far as books goes, my advice is to stay away from them. There is nothing more confusing that a ton of different points of view and nothing that is more corrosive to your confidence as a parent that a whole lot of conflicting advice.
In terms of his general self-esteem building, offer opportunities for his growth as a person. Anything that makes him feel that his contributions are part of helping his community. Scouts is a good and if you’re an outdoor person, he’s just the right age for Junior Forest Wardens. Helping out at home and even shovelling granny’s driveway (yours or someone else’s) in winter can be a great source of pride and a good self esteem builder.
To get more of your parenting questions answered, please visit my parenting services page.
All the best to you and your family.