Children with low self-esteem generally find it difficult to see and name the positive specialness in themselves. Instead they tend to sprinkle their conversations with negative self-image comments.
David, who was eleven, would have been tall for his age if he stood up straight. His large brown eyes gave the impression he was trying to hide from the world. Not only did he have trouble reading, but if you talked with him for very long, it sounded as though he had trouble with everything in his life. During our first session, I focused on our getting to know each other. Since it was winter, I suggested the weather was good for ice skating, mentioned I liked to skate, and wondered if he did.
“Yes,” he replied, but then put himself down by saying, “I’m not very good at it.” It didn’t sound like the best topic for getting involved, so I decided to try another.
“My favorite time of year is really summer,” I said, “when people can go swimming. Do you like to swim?”
“I guess so,” David said, but immediately negated himself with, “I don’t know how very well.”
I decided on a different tack altogether. “Who’s your best friend?” I asked smilingly.
“Mark,” he replied, “but Mark moved away, and none of the other boys at school really like me.”
This series of replies, each one carrying a self-put-down, are fairly typical of a low self-esteemer’s way of thinking about himself.
In working with David to build in success, I was especially conscious to point out things he did well. I emphasized he didn’t have to do things exceptionally well from the beginning, only to learn at his own pace.
I suspected it was possible that some of his eagerness to put himself down was to protect himself from being criticized. People couldn’t criticize him because he beat them to it by criticizing himself. I also felt his self-expectations were unrealistically high: he demanded of himself that he ice skate very well; he couldn’t simply enjoy the fact he could ice skate.
I found it important with David to find reading material about which he could be excited; he needed the excitement to give him an extra push to counterbalance his natural fear of failure; for example, to create excitement, I devised a game for looking up spelling words in the dictionary and learning their meaning. Searching for words turned into a treasure hunt, which led to finding a hidden piece of bubble gum. The adventure of tracking down the bubble gum, my delight in his success, and capturing his reward all helped David to focus on success rather than failure.
After this, David began to perform better in the classroom, and his attitude toward himself began to change subtly. One of the ways I could was that in conversation he no longer added those negative disclaimers about his abilities. He could simply affirm himself by saying, “I like to skate,” or “I like to swim,” or “I’ve got a friend Mark.”
I noticed that whenever my daughter Wanda received a good grade on a paper or a high mark on her report card, she’d be apt to disparage her accomplishment. While some children feel they need an excuse for getting low grades, Wanda found ways to deny her own accomplishment, put herself as a bright student. To me it indicated an area where self-esteem was lacking.
When I confronted her by saying, for example, “Why don’t you acknowledge you did very well?” or “Why don’t you admit you worked very hard and handed in a very good paper?” she consistently resisted admitting she did anything well. She could admit she worked hard, but couldn’t allow herself to say she was capable of doing some things extraordinarily well.
I pointed out this habit of hers and teased her gently about it, and in a good-humored way generally tried to get her to see how she denied herself. Maybe with enough support from me, she’ll get more comfortable esteeming her academic self as I do. I look forward to the day when I will hear Wanda excited and pleased with her good marks, no longer needing to explain away some of the good feelings.
Self-Esteem Principle: When low-self-esteem children stop making disparaging comments about themselves, it’s a probable sign of growing self-esteem.