Children with low self-esteem are usually anger to relate but fear being able to relate successfully. Since failure is most threatening to them, be positive and success-oriented in your approach.
As I mentioned before, one of my usual approaches in relating to a new child in tutoring or therapy is to have ready a series of nonthreatening questions in neutral areas, for example, favorites or preferences in sports, hobbies, colors, music, holidays, food, etc. Talking about such topics usually fosters relaxed relating.
Direct questions are not always helpful. Often my clients are children who have suffered traumas or serious problems. It requires a delicate balance to show interest in what’s bothering a child without sounding as if I were prying or perhaps morbidly curious. Nina, for example, needed to talk to me about her father being killed before her very eyes. For me to have asked direct questions about the killing would have seemed like the nosey neighbors she later told me about who had cross-examined her after her father’s death. It took a long time for Nina to trust that I was interested in her and how things were in her life. It took a long time before she realized I was not a threat to her. I had begun relating by focusing on areas like sports and school, which were less threatening. When she was ready, she allowed a deeper relating, where she talked about her family. Only after that did she bring up her father’s death.
The principle of showing interest in a nonthreatening way applies also to less extreme examples. For instance, I know some children who are terribly uncomfortable talking about a parent who is ill, especially if the parent is hospitalized. With such children, I find it helpful to concern in a casual way without making the child feel he or she must go into details, which might make them cry and feel embarrassed, or in any way uncomfortable, for example, “I’m sorry to hear your father’s in the hospital. I hope he’ll be fine.” If a child wants only to reply “Thank you,” it’s okay for him or her to do so. Or a friendly, neighborly statement like, “I understand your mother is sick. Let me know of there’s anything I can do,” does not put pressure on the child, yet can be of great help.
Many parents, including myself, are often wondering if heir adolescent children need some guidance or help. As parents, it’s often difficult to know how to broach subjects like sex, alcohol, or drugs. You want to relate to the children openly and want them to be able to confide in you and to ask you questions rather than have their questions or fears go unanswered. I have this wish, too, not only for my own children, but also for the children I tutor and counsel. I have learned to look for the signals they give when they want to talk about something.
At age eleven, Sandy, who wanted to ask questions about her own adolescent development, to drawing nude women on the chalkboard from time to time during tutoring sessions. I sensed it was a message to me, so I formulated a nonthreatening question. I asked, “Is there something about a woman’s body you’re specially interested in?”
“No,” she said flatly. “I think women’s bodies are icky. Icky,” she repeated with emphasis.
That was her opening and my cue, so I asked, “Why icky?”
She said, “They get all fat and funny looking.” I asked if she meant they developed breasts and sometimes had babies.
“Yes,” she replied, “but I’m never going to let that happen to me.”
“What are you afraid will happen?” I asked.
“I sure don’t want that blood thing to happen to me,” she asserted.
“What do you mean?” I asked. And without waiting, I took a guess, “Do you mean menstruation?”
“Yes,” she said. “What if I’m walking down the street with a boy and the blood starts to run down on the ground?”
“Did anybody ever tell you about menstruation?” I asked gently.
“One of my friends did,” she replied, “and she said that could happen.”
“I don’t think it would really happen that way,” I assured her. Then I asked her if she would like me to explain how menstruation worked. She said yes, and did.
After that, she stopped drawing pictures of nude women on the chalkboard.
What was already a trusting relationship between Sandy and me became even more so. During the encounter over menstruation, I kept the situation as nonthreatening as possible. There were only the two of us; we had plenty of time in a private place with no interruptions. I invited her, step by step, into talking about what was troubling her. I respected her privacy and her own way of telling me what she needed. I didn’t view drawing pictures of nude women as something to scold her about, but rather I searched for the motivation behind the action. I honored her need to express herself in whatever way her innate creativity would suggest.
It also helps for parents to look for the reasons behind their child’s action, as well as the action itself. When a child is trying to get your attention by behavior, perhaps inappropriate or negative behavior, you can be sure there is usually some reason or issue behind it. A repeated behavior indicates the issue is pushing to be addressed. Maybe part of this self-esteem idea is for you yourself not to be threatened by behavior in your child that appears shocking. Spend your energy caringly probing for the message behind the behavior and its successful outcome.
Self-Esteem Principle: Successful relating with children nourishes self-esteem. And you can help provide the conditions for it.