One of the first steps in encouraging healthy self-esteem in children is to establish good relationship with them. Persons in relationship are ultimately what the world is all about. Relationships which are mutually loving and caring, honest and supportive create an atmosphere for healthy human growth.
This chapter’s eight principles for nurturing self-esteem in children focus on building such relationships. Principles in later chapters also help foster healthy relationship, but these first eight are very basic ones.
Listen Without Making Judgements
In relating to children who want to talk about what they are doing and how they are feeling, stay present to them while they sort out what they want to do or say. Stay with them mentally without offering advice. Be simply a good listener while their initial surface feelings and responses finish poring out. Without judging them, reflect back to them what say to you. Give back descriptive words to express what they experience. This kind of nonjudgmental listening proves you value them and their feelings.
One day Julie came home from school, violently burst through the front door, threw her coat angrily on the chair, and without a word stomped up the stairs to her room and slammed the door closed behind her. The emotional exhaust she left in her wake indicated she was either outraged or embarrassed or angry. Or all three.
My first impulse was to be irritated at her behavior and to tell her I did not approve of her violent entrance and impoliteness to me, for she had not even said, “Hi, mom.”
On second thought, I realized she seemed angry and upset. Furthermore, I realized the stomping and slamming told me she wanted my attention and sympathy, or she probably would not have made her entrance that way.
I went to her room, knocked on the door, and walked in. I did not wait for her to decide whether or not to invite me in. I saved her the necessity of the decision. Knocking her, she probably would have said, “Go away,” but I decided to exercise my parent’s prerogative by sitting down on the bed next to her and gently inviting her to let out her feelings.
At times like these, adults may need a series of questions to ask that are gentler and less abstract than, “What is wrong?” I recall asking Julie a number of questions like, “Did something happen at school? Did something hurt your feelings? Did somebody do something that made you angry? Did somebody hurt you?” and may be ending up with, “Can you tell me about it?”
“I do not talk about it,” was her reply.
“I’m sorry something had made you unhappy,” I said. I remained seated, patiently and quietly. I hoped she felt my message, that I was content just to offer her my presence as a gesture of comforting. I wanted her to know I was not abandoning her and I was not uncomfortable with her feelings.
In a little while she began to talk a bit about what had happened. I did not push for more; I just listened quietly and attentively. It was important for me to let her anger pour out in whatever way it came. It was not necessary for me to try to make any sense of it, not important to point out any of her irrationality, not important to offer any advice about what she should have done or could have done. At that moment my way of loving her was just to listen and let all the confusion, anger, and strong feelings come out in her own words, even if the words she used appeared a bit crude, rude, and probably exaggerated. She even used some words on our family taboo list, but I felt this was not the time to remind of her that.
At times she seemed to need help with finding more precise words to describe her feelings and the situation, so I offered some suggestions, not as judgments or conclusions, but rather as a way to help her better express her feelings.
When upset children have as much time as they need to pour out their story in their own way and supply all the details in their own style, they usually feel respected and valued. Julie knew I was taking her seriously and would give her all the time she needed. In an unhurried atmosphere, she could begin to bring herself to some realistic conclusions about the situation and own her own part in it.
Later, when she had calmed down some, I encouraged her to come up with alternatives and evaluate what she wanted to do about the situation, using her own rational abilities.
Julie’s situation that day was rather complex. It seems she had been passing note in class with a few other girls. One of her notes was intercepted by the teacher, who decided, without thinking and without checking it, to read it aloud to the class. As I recall, it said something like, “I think this is the dumbest class I have ever been in and the stupidest teacher in the world.” Naturally, Julie was very embarrassed to be singled out in front of the class. I think part of her outrage was that the entire class now knew what was in the note. On top of that, the teacher said, “I want to speak to you after class,” at which time she scolded Julie at length; for the teacher too had been surprised and embarrassed hearing herself read the contents of the note.
I listened, supported, and comforted her as best I could, and left what she would do about the situation up to her. I think she realized one of her options would be to write the teacher a note of apology.
I never asked her again about the incident. She knew I was concerned and had listened to her story, she also new I would let her do what she chose to do and not cross-examine her about it. I respected her need for dignity. Till this day I don’t know what she did.
Self-Esteem Principle: Listening heals broken self-esteem healthy relationship develop between children and adults who listen.