There is no coincidence that difficult behavior is often linked to low self-esteem. If a child feels bad about himself he’s far less likely to act well towards others. If you want to improve behavior, you have to improve how the child feels about himself. Helping a child to feel good about themselves is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling parts of gentle discipline. Here are a few ways you can help:
Helping a child to feel loved unconditionally, regardless of their behavior or abilities, must always come first. You cannot increase a child’s self-esteem or confidence without starting from this point. Only when they feel loved by their parents for who they are can they begin to love themselves…. The key is in not trying to change your child but accepting them as they are— the good and the bad. Listen intently to everything they have to say and always be there for them. Help them to calm down when they are sad or angry and don’t ignore their behavior or the feelings behind it, no matter how tempted you are to do so. Last, don’t punish or shame them and don’t use exclusion from you— whether that’s being shut in their rooms, in time- out, or on the naughty step— as a way to handle undesirable behavior. When you do this, the message that you give to them is that you want to be around them only when they are “good.” In other words, there is a part of their personality that you really don’t like. The result? They begin to dislike themselves.
Develop Their Problem-Solving Skills
Every time you swoop in and fix something for your child, whether resolving a sibling argument, completing a jigsaw puzzle, or helping with homework, you deprive your child of the ability to sort it out themselves. Giving your child some space to solve their own problems does wonders for increasing their self-esteem and confidence. If they think they can’t do something, help them to know that you trust that they can—“That looks really tricky; I have faith in you, though”— and to think critically and logically, knowing this is something they struggle to do alone. Asking questions is a great way to trigger their problem-solving ability: “Do you think that the shape you need has a straight side or a bobbly side?” Or, “Can you think of anything that would help here?” Each problem that your child solves as independently as possible will help to build their self-esteem and confidence.
Tell Them How You Feel About Them
Most of us are forthcoming with insults and criticism or nonspecific praise of our children, but how often do we really tell them how we feel about them? Taking time to look properly at a picture that they have painted and commenting on how you like the colors they have chosen, or telling them how proud they make you feel and saying that you’ve noticed how hard they have been trying to master a handstand, for example, can really help your child to feel loved and seen. As children get older it can be a little harder to do this, especially if they reply, “Oh, Mum, you’re so embarrassing. Stop it.” At first, it may seem that they don’t want you to tell them how you feel about them anymore, but it just means you have to do it in a different way— because we all like to know when others think well of us, however old we are. My favorite approach in the tween and teen years is to write notes to each other. I have also been known to e-mail or text them. After a tricky period with my (then) eleven- year- old son we had a really lovely day together, and afterward I wrote a note and pinned it onto his bulletin board in an envelope with his name on it. It said something like this:
“I just wanted to write you a note to tell you how much I loved today— it’s been such a lovely day, thank you so much. You were really helpful and it makes me so proud to see how much you like to help other people. See you tomorrow. I love you very much. Mum xxx”
The next morning I found a note on my pillow. He had written back to me:
“Dear Mum, I really liked your note, thank you for writing it. It really made me smile. I’m pleased that you appreciated me helping you, I really enjoyed it too”.
Occasionally, I have been known to write notes and pop them into their lunch boxes or school bags, particularly if they are feeling worried about something.
Opportunities for Independence
In the same way that you should encourage children to solve their own problems, you also need to let them take care of their own needs as much as possible. If a task is age appropriate, allow them to complete it unaided, to make them feel capable and confident. Too many parents take on tasks for their children that they are capable of doing themselves. And each time they do so, they take away some of the confidence and self-esteem that accompany the sense of achievement and feelings of “I did it!” Giving children special responsibilities around the house or at school can help too. If your child struggles at school, asking their teachers to consider giving them a job, such as delivering the attendance record or collecting the mail, can make a big difference. Also, make sure that you do not force your own unfilled wishes and regrets onto your child. Allow them to choose their own activities and hobbies and their own life path as much as possible. If you wanted to take ballet classes when you were young, but for some reason didn’t, don’t force it on your child. They need to make their own choices and decisions, free from your influence, as often as they can.
This is a short excerpt from my discipline book, published as ‘Gentle Discipline’ in the USA and Canada and ‘The Gentle Discipline Book’ in the UK, ROI, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. You can buy the book in the UK, USA, Canada and elsewhere in the world.