Trust is important in building self-esteem.
When my stepdaughter Rita, aged eight, stayed with us during our first summer, it was a difficult time for her because her mother was moving their family (Rita and her older brother and sister) to another city, and Rita would be leaving many of her friends behind. She seemed generally grouchy and out of sorts with her brother and sister. I was young, and newly married with no children of my own yet, and three stepchildren to manage for the summer. At the time, I didn’t know what was bothering Rita; I only knew she was easily irritated.
One afternoon she burst into tears at some little disagreement with her sister. I put my arms around her and took her into her bedroom in an effort to comfort her. Once in her bedroom, she began to cry even harder. Her brother and sister were standing at the open doorway, curious. I asked them to go and play by themselves for a while and I closed the door to make a safe and private space for Rita.
I asked her if she knew what was making her feel so badly. At first she only cried and shook her head no. I said that was okay, rubbed her back, and cuddled her. In a little while, she began to talk about her sadness and fears of leaving her old house, the friends and neighbors she knew and loved. Her fears were not so much focused on the new house as on the loss of friends from the old place. Would they forget about her, she wondered? Would she ever see them again?
I couldn’t reassure her about things, I explained, because I didn’t know what the future held for her. But I could give her plenty of support and love, and a safe place to let those feelings out.
At one point I heard her brother and sister outside Rita’s bedroom door; they were obviously curious about what was happening. I went to the door and asked them please to go outside and play, as Rita and I needed time just for the two of us to be alone and not be overheard. I added that probably everybody needed privacy sometime and maybe even they would, too. Then I closed the door and went back to Rita.
My statement to her brother and sister at the door seemed to be a special turning point. I think that up till then Rita had experienced an opportunity to share her feelings. But in my explaining to her brother and sister that this was not a time for listening in and in asking them to respect her privacy, she had grasped her right to deal with her strong feelings without embarrassment or being teased. I had shown respect for her and had asked her brother and sister to respect her needs, too, in a way they understood. It was an important moment for all three children in learning they could turn to me as someone they could trust. I became for them someone they could share their feelings with when they might be afraid to with other people, and someone they tested new feelings with.
My sense of self-esteem grew as I realized how much my stepchildren trusted me. The rights they had, which I respected , they learned to respect, too. And their sense of self-esteem grew.
I must admit I wasn’t always so attuned and helpful, much as I would like to have been. Many times I missed their cues or became frustrated. But the basis for trust remained secure, and I was forgiven for my insensitive times.
The incident I remember with most regret also had to do with Rita, who had an occasional problem with bedwetting, as I discovered in doing the laundry. She was about eleven then. She wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, a friend who lived in a summer home near ours, and her fathers had given her permission.
When I heard about it, I was immediately concerned with what the friend’s mother might say if Rita wet her bed. I feared the mother would be shocked, and I imagined how badly this would reflect upon our family. I didn’t think the situation through; I just reacted. ‘I don’t think Rita ought to spend the night,’ I said to Rita’s father as she stood nearby, ‘because she sometimes still wets her bed.’ Rita was of course embarrassed at this revelation to her father and maintained she didn’t wet her bed anymore.
Caught in my own need to prove I was right, I asserted she still wet her bed. To prove my case, I brought her stained bed sheets from the laundry hamper for everyone to see. I won my point but dreadfully wounded Rita’s self-esteem and, temporarily, the trust of mutual respect. I had trampled on the sensitivities of this young child.
In retrospect, I wish I had gone to Rita instead of her father about the decision and either convinced Rita she should make other arrangements than spending the night or trusted that she could handle the situation if she did wet a bed at her friend’s home. In truth, Rita’s possible bedwetting was really a situation between her and her friend, and not my responsibility.
Upon reflection, I realized I had confused my own ego and my own embarrassment with hers. My need to prove I was right complicated an issue that could have been resolved in a way that built trust rather than undermined it.
Self-Esteem Principle: Children’s self-esteem grows when they trust you and they ask you to trust them.