Emotionally, children are easily threatened by anyone bigger, older, or more confident than they are. Not yet possessing the well-developed defenses adults usually have, children’s sense of self is still fragile, vulnerable, and easily knocked down. For example, children often don’t understand the significant difference chronological age can make in their performance. Younger children may feel stupid because their older siblings appear smarter. They do not realize older children have had more time than they for learning skills, physical growth, greater muscle control, more practice, and more experience in sports, school, the arts, and so on. Younger children need to understand they may be years behind in experience but not necessarily in intelligence.
Even without threats from others, low self-esteem children tend to think of themselves as unlovable, incompetent, unimportant, and in the way. Feelings of insecurity, embarrassment, failure, and fear abound inside them.
Be Careful about Challenging Fantasies
Let children do their own weaning from fantasy. When reality asserts itself, as it will its own healing time, they will respond to it. Here I’m thinking of the kind of fantasy, for example, where a child talks about fears over a performance. How many times I remember my children coming to me full of apprehension. “I’m going to be in a play, mom, and I know I’ll really make a mess of it. Everybody else will be good and I’ll be awful. I’ll never learn my lines.”
Instead of contradicting the fantasy and arguing the child will do fine, which only heightens the child’s feelings that you don’t understand the magnitude of the problem, you might instead, after reassuring the child you have faith in them, offer some concrete support, perhaps volunteering to help the child learn script lines and going to the performance.
Fantasies like these reflect primarily the question of self-esteem. Children are calling for you to recognize how important the task (play, exam, etc.) is to them and how great the fear of failure looms. The caring adult can, first, value those feelings and then show a willingness to help the children deal with the demands of the task. When the children’s task is over, together you can deal with the reality. If they succeeded, you can rejoice with them. If they barely survived, you can assure them they had not done as badly as they thought. If they failed, thereby fulfilling their fear, you can remind them they did survive and are still living and breathing. When reality asserts itself, respond to it.
A second nonthreatening response to a child’s fantasy involves restating their fantasy in terms of reality. Point to the reality the fantasy portrays and let children assimilate as much reality as they can. There is no need to make them swallow it.
For example, sometimes a child will tell a story that seems like a lie or a distortion. Instead of challenging the truth of the story, it can be helpful to look at the story as a parallel or metaphor of some real concern in the child’s current life. For example, Albert once told me his father was going to take him to Disneyland over Christmas vacation. “We’re going to stay in the hotel there,” he added. “We’ll spend a whole week there going on rides and seeing the shows.”
The facts were Albert was a poor and physically handicapped seven-year-old and his father, who did not live with him and seldom came to visit him, was also very poor. Albert had probably heard about Disneyland from some other child at school.
I looked at Albert’s fantasy not as a lie but as a wish, so I talked with him about how nice it would be to go to Disneyland and to spend all that time with his father. We never talked about the fact that the trip would not happen, but only about how nice it would be. Albert was taking the opportunity to use his creative imagination to its fullest and to enjoy in fantasy what would not happen in the physical world.
His fantasy told me, indirectly but clearly, how much he wished his father would spend more time with him and do special things with him. The father relationship was an important part of Albert’s lack of self-esteem and is something I needed to know about and to work on in therapy with him, not by recognizing what he missed and wished for in order to build his self-esteem.
A third nonthreatening way of dealing with a child’s fantasy is to respond to the reality of the feeling behind the fantasy, whether it be fear, joy, confidence, enthusiasm, or something else. Understand the fantasy as a child’s way of setting the scene to display an important feeling, or as a way of allowing themselves to express this feeling.
For example, one evening when Wanda was a little child and her father and I had gone out for the evening, she told me the next morning she had been scared by a nightmare and ran to my bedroom, only to find I was not there, and how terrifying that was to her. What she did not tell was that the babysitter was present in the house that the time in another room.
Part of what Wanda described was a child’s terror of going through empty rooms (we lived in a big house) to get to where mother and father are, only to find they are not there. According to Wanda’s version, she walked back through all the dark empty rooms to her room, crawled back into bed, and experienced very frightened, abandoned feelings.
The fact there was a babysitter around was part of the reality, but it was not important for Wanda. What was important in the fantasy was Wanda’s childhood fear of facing frightening things like nightmares without the protection of parents, in short, the fear of being abandoned in a frightening situation.
When Wanda told me this story, I did not face her with the reality that there was a babysitter in the house. It’s easy for parents and teachers to challenge a child’s fantasies by saying, “But that isn’t true” or “That’s just not so” or some version of “You are lying.” Rather, I tried to step into her world by agreeing, “it must have been very scary to be such a little girl in such a big house and to find your father and I were not there to comfort you when you were scared.”
As a parent, I often find myself in touch with the wish, impossible as it maybe always to be able to protect my children from scary things. And I sometimes share that parental desire with them, saying, “I wish I could be here for you always, but I can’t .” this is an important reality for grownups as well as children to learn: That as a parent, I wish I could always be there when I’m needed, but I can’t always. I tell this to my daughters, for they’ll need to remember it, too, when they have children: You can’t protect your children from everything scary, and you can’t always be there when you’re needed, but you do want to be and you do try to be as best you can.
Self-esteem seems to have to do with being valued for your feelings and fears. It grows when children know their fears are accepted as part of who they are. It’s as if I had said to Wanda, “I love all of you, including your feelings and fears.”
Accepting Wanda’s fears and wishing to have been able to comfort her in them, I could esteem my self as a caring, protective parent. I could feel Wanda’s esteem of me as well as her esteem of herself.
I something forget to apply my own principles. A few years ago, my daughter Miranda in her adolescent anger told me I was never there when she needed me “all that year when you were so busy studying and being wrapped up in your own interests.”
Instead of hearing Miranda’s anger and frustration at not feeling valued and how her needs had gone unnoticed I defended myself. I enumerated the facts. I pointed out all the times I had driven her to music lessons, play practice, and friends’ houses. I reminded her of all the nights I had slept at the foot of her bed during the winter when she had been ill. I told her I was frustrated at her poor memory and lack of appreciation. I was so caught up in asserting “reality” that I could not hear in her fantasy her request for more attention and her feelings of being neglected. So we ended up angrily shouting at rather than understanding each other.
Self-Esteem Principle: A budding healthy self-esteem doesn’t need to be challenged. Don’t weed a garden until the plants are strong enough to stay rooted when you pull the weeds.