Jan. 24, 2013

Parents, I’m going to offer you the simplest, easiest way to teach your children to have low self-esteem.

Oh, sure, the obvious way is to do any or all of the following:

  • be emotionally or physically abusive to your children or spouse
  • be emotionally distressed yourself, with anxiety, depression, narcissistic/self-absorbed, etc, (but don’t go get therapy!)
  • be a substance abuser
  • abandon your children physically or emotionally
  • be inconsistent with discipline or too permissive
  • be too authoritarian and strict

But those are all a lot of work!  You don’t even have to go to all that trouble. Here is the easiest way to teach your child to feel shameful about himself:  Don’t listen.  That’s it — the key to raising a child who feels bad about himself.

I see this every day in my therapy practice with parents and their children.  Yet these parents are just behaving as their parents did and as many, many parents do today.

To illustrate, here is one scenario of a typical parent/child conversation:

Mom: “What a beautiful picture you drew in school today.”

Child: “Oh, well, I think it sucks.”

Mom: “No, it’s great. Look at the pretty colors! And the people you drew are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom:   “Don’t say that. You don’t hate drawing. You are a good artist. Look at this nice picture you drew. We have so many pictures that you drew that are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, I told you it sucks. I hate drawing. I’m never going to draw again.”

I’m sure most parents can claim a conversation similar to that one. Normal parenting, right? Supportive of the child, building his self-esteem, reinforcing his talents, right?

Wrong! Instead, this conversation taught the child:

  • your opinions don’t matter
  • your feelings don’t count
  • your “self” isn’t real and important
  • your mother doesn’t know or care about the real you
  • adults don’t listen to your concerns or ask how you feel
  • talking about feelings is wrong and scary
  • admitting faults is wrong and scary and vulnerable

Now those are some terrific lessons in building low self-worth.  And all from a simple conversation about a painting in first grade!

Instead, I recommend to parents that I see in therapy that they use a simple technique called “Reflective Listening.” This is actually something we use as psychologists (Shhh — don’t tell!).

With reflective listening, the conversation above would go something like this:

Mom: “Looks like you have something there in your hand from school.”

Child: “Yeah, I drew this picture, but it sucks.”

Mom: “Oh, you think this painting isn’t very good.”

Child: “Yeah, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom: “You really, really don’t like drawing or this picture.”

Child: “No. Hate it. Everyone draws better than me.”

Mom: “Ah. You feel like everyone else in class can draw better than you do.”

Child: “Yeah, and Miss Smith didn’t say she liked my drawing.”

Mom: “Oh, so it didn’t feel good when Miss Smith ignored your drawing. It seems to me like you are angry.”

Child:  “Well, maybe a little.”

Mom: “And sad, too?”

Ok, so you get the point.  Reflective listening involves the extremely simple idea of reflecting back (hence the name!) what the other person says.  It can at first seem boring and repetitive, but if done well, it can lead to some good stuff:

  • the person feels “heard”
  • the person is able to process his feelings without solutions, direction or opinions of the other person
  • emotions are recognized and validated
  • his real “self” is honored and accepted

The first scenario can seem so “good” as a parent — you are telling the child that he is worthwhile right? You are saying his painting is good and he is good. But instead, the opposite is happening. You are in essence telling the child he is wrong, his opinion is wrong, and he concludes that his self is also not worth much. Notice in the second conversation how the child isn’t contradicted or challenged.

Reflective listening ideally also leads the conversation to an emotion. Try to describe how you see what your child is feeling:  angry, sad, frustrated, upset, happy, content. Honor those emotions and let the child see that it is OK to express and talk about emotions.

Ideally, with an older child, if you can introduce the topics of shame and the need for acceptance and belonging as the roots of most emotional distress, that’s ideal. But you might just need a graduate degree in psychology for that trick.  Or maybe just go see a therapist for family counseling!



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