Most children with low self esteem keep trying hard to prove they are unlovable and incompetent.
A number of children I worked with had been with other tutors previously. When that tutoring hadn’t proved successful, the children felt like failures-hopeless, discarded. When their parents contracted for them to work with me, it felt like they were now going to have to face those feelings of failure one more time with a new tutor. They were prepared to feel hopeless. They certainly didn’t accept their own possibility of success.
Again and again, I found no one had ever explained to the children the dynamics of what went on their lives, whether it was their inability to read, to speak clearly, to concentrate, to socially interact. It was Tommy who told me adults always just said, “You don’t pay attention to what I say.”
So I asked Tommy a few questions about his daily life. I learned that at home a great deal of Tommy’s time was spent in the presence of Spanish-speaking maids. Generally, these women talked to each other but not to Tommy, because he didn’t understand Spanish. So he tuned them out. And it became a habit with him to tune out people near by who weren’t talking directly to him or capturing his interest. When I learned from Tommy about the situation at home and asked him if he thought it had anything to do with his not paying attention to people, he said yes. The foreign-speaking women at home didn’t explain all of Tommy’s learning problems, but thinking about it did help him see some of the habits he picked up weren’t because he was a bad boy. They had happened naturally and understandably, as a response to daily experiences.
It took Sandy quite a while before she told me she was retarded. Evidently it was a very embarrassing admission for her. I was surprised at her revelation and asked her why she thought she was retarded. She explained how compared to other children it was much harder for her to read and spell. I told her I thought she was really a bright child but had a learning disability – what people call dyslexia- which was quite different from being retarded.
No one had ever explained to Sandy what went on in her brain, what her learning disabilities were, and why they were there. So I talked to Sandy about her own learning problems.
Generally, if I talk to children about dyslexia or learning disabilities, I avoid the term brain damage because it sounds scary to them. Sandy, I found out, had overheard her mother saying she had brain damage, and Sandy thought that meant she was retarded. I asked her if she knew what had caused the brain damage.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “When I was two years old I fell down two flights of stairs. I was even unconscious for a long time. The doctors didn’t think I would like.
I acknowledged to Sandy her symptoms indicated brain damage, “But brain damage has nothing to do with your being bright.” I explained how her fall had probably caused damage to some of her nerves and cells, which meant she would need to find special ways to learn. Indeed, I assured her, we had been doing just that, and to help her learn in new ways was my job.
“Your fall did not take away your intelligence,” I assured her, “it just made it harder for you to learn in the usual classroom ways. In fact, you must be very intelligent to have learned to read and comprehend as well as you do, since reading words in proper sequence is very difficult for you.”
From time to time we would talk about the way her mind worked so she could be reassured she wasn’t retarded. Anytime I could, I would point out some of the real gifts she had. I told her I thought she was quite gifted and explained to her what it meant to be gifted.
I am always distressed when I come across a situation where children have not been told about themselves in clear, affirmative ways, but left to draw their own frightening conclusions or be misnamed by other children. Children with low self esteem are particularly likely to fixate on the worst possible conclusions about themselves and live year after year in a hopeless state.
Self-Esteem Principle: If I can see and understand the undesirable in children and still accept them, then they come a bit closer to understanding and accepting themselves.