Four Roads to Helping Your Children Develop Positive Self-Esteem

Four Roads to Healthier Self-Esteem

This case and the discussion that follows is excerpted from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk.”

Father: I’m a single dad and so I have the job of two parents. It’s hard, but it’s especially hard because I’m a worrier. My girls don’t have a mom around and so I get obsessed about their self-esteem. What can I do to boost their self-esteem?

Consultant: That’s a great question . . . and a big question. But before we talk about the answer, tell me, what sorts of things are you doing now to build their self-esteem?

Father: I compliment them as much as I can. I praise them. I constantly say “I love you.”

Consultant: Can you give me an example of how you compliment them?

Father: Like last night. The girls were coloring and they kept showing me their pictures and I would say, “That’s beautiful!” and “That’s wonderful!” and “You two are great artists.” Stuff like that.

Consultant: I should say first that I think it’s wonderful that you’re so positive with your daughters. I wish more parents were positive like you.

Father: Thanks, but, uh, what else can I do?

Consultant: You’re great at using praise and compliments and that’s really important, but I’ve got other ideas about how to expand your self-esteem-building repertoire.  Can I share a few?

Father: Go for it.

Consultant:  Let’s take the coloring and picture-drawing example. You’re giving out praise and compliments, which is very important. But praise and compliments are what we call “external” or “outside-in” strategies. They build your daughters’ self-esteem from the outside in. You’re the outside expert and you tell them they’re great. There are three other things you could add to that. I’ll describe these three options now, but I have a tip sheet that describes them, too.

First, instead of praising and complimenting, sometimes you could use a technique called “mirroring.” Mirroring is more of an “inside-out” technique for building self-esteem. To use mirroring, you should watch your children and mirror their positive feelings back to them. For example, you could say, “You look really happy about your drawing,” or you could ask a question: “What do you like best about your drawing?” By using these mirroring responses, you’re encouraging your children to judge their own drawings. That’s why we call it an inside-out approach, because it draws out your children’s internal feelings and judgments.

Father: Okay. I think I get that, but what if one of my daughters doesn’t like her drawing—or, even worse, what if she says ‘I hate my drawing’?

Consultant: Good questions. You’re so good at praise, your daughters may be depending on you for their compliments. If one daughter can’t think of anything positive, that’s okay. No need to get worried. We all sometimes produce things we don’t like. But you might try several things. You could just reflect back her feelings and see what happens by saying, “I guess you don’t like this drawing so much.” Or you could push her to identify to positives and negatives with a comment like, “Well, I see something about it I like, but I don’t want to go first. So, first you tell me what you like and then I’ll say what I like.” Or, you could help her focus on her next drawing with empathy and encouragement by saying, “Hmmm. You don’t seem too happy with this drawing. Maybe you’ll like your next one better.” The thing that’s important to remember is that false praise or too much praise doesn’t help your children build self-esteem from the inside out. Pretty soon, they’ll recognize that you always say something positive and they might start wondering if you really mean it.

Father: Okay. I get it.

Consultant: That’s mirroring. The key is to draw out or reflect your child’s judgments. It’s even okay to mirror back if she doesn’t like her drawing. This is part of respecting her judgment. If she doesn’t like the drawing, that’s okay, just reflect that back. You can even move a little bit away from mirroring and if you really like her drawing you can disagree with her and say something like, “I see you don’t like your drawing, but here’s what I like about it.”

Father: All right.

Consultant: The next method after praise and mirroring is character feedback. Character feedback is when you say something like, “You’re the kind of girl who loves to draw.” What you’re doing with this method is you’re making a positive behavior into a character trait. Try that out. Think of a character trait that one of your daughters has and put it into the sentence, “You’re the kind of girl who . . .”

Father: My older daughter likes to keep all her school stuff organized. So would I say, “You’re a girl who’s organized”?

Consultant: Sure. Almost anyway you say it is fine. What you’re doing is helping her build positive character traits so she begins seeing herself as an organized person.

Father: How about my other daughter? She’s very disorganized. Do I tell her, “You’re a disorganized girl”? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Consultant: Exactly. When we use character feedback, we almost always use it for positive character traits. With your less organized daughter, you might wait for a time when she displays even a tiny bit of organizational skill and then say, “I notice you can really get organized when you want to.” For character feedback, just think of yourself as a mirror that reflects positive behaviors and forms them into character traits. What’s interesting about this is that most parents, including me, tend to watch for our children’s weaknesses and negative qualities and comment on them. For example, lots of parents and teachers see children misbehaving and can’t resist making comments like, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you keep your hands to yourself?” or “You’re lying again, aren’t you? You need to get over that lying problem.” Basically, when we repeatedly comment on our children’s negative behaviors we help them construct a more negative character. They end up thinking, “I’m the kind of kid who just keeps getting into trouble.” The magic of character feedback is that we can use it to intentionally construct positive character traits. I know it’s manipulative, but it’s being manipulative in a positive way.

Father: That’s interesting. I do have trouble not commenting when my daughters misbehave. Should I  ignore misbehavior?

Consultant: Not always. We should just focus most of our attention on our children’s positive behaviors and only a little of our attention on the negative behaviors. Sometimes our children need corrective feedback or input. But if we focus too much on the negative, the negative will tend to grow, because it’s getting so much attention.

Father: Okay. I think I get that. You said you have a handout on this, right?

Consultant: Right. And there’s one last method. The last method is called solution-focused questioning. Here’s an example with your less organized daughter. Let’s say she shows a flash of organizational skill. Then, you could ask something like, “Wow. How did you manage to get your school work all organized?” Be careful to be curious and impressed, but not too surprised. You know how some parents will say things like, “Who are you and what have you done with my child?” as a joke. Well, that’s a funny joke, but it plays on the fact that the child is acting in an unusual way. What we want to communicate is that it’s normal for your daughter to be organized when she wants to and so you’re showing curiosity about how she manages to get organized. Solution-focused questions with children almost always ask them to reflect on how they accomplished something positive. For example, you could say: “How did you manage to be honest and tell the truth in that hard situation?” or “How did you figure out how to get that puzzle together?”

Father: Okay. This one is about focusing on solutions.

Consultant: Right. Let’s try one. What’s something one of your daughters did well this past week?

Father: My organized daughter had a terrible tantrum and then apologized to me.

Consultant: That’s great. What would be a solution-focused question?

Father: Um, how about this? “What were you thinking when you decided to apologize?”

Consultant: Yeah. That’s pretty good. But that might feel like you’re investigating or analyzing her thoughts. I might change it a little and throw in a positive character trait, like, “How did you find the courage to come and apologize to me?” That sends her a message that it takes courage to apologize and as long as you agree with that, it might be a nice way to combine a solution-focused question and a little character feedback.

Father: I like that.

Consultant: I should also say that often when we ask solution-focused questions of children they just shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know,” which is perfectly fine. The point is that hopefully we’re building into them a tendency to reflect on how they managed to do something that was positive or successful.

Father: Right. I can imagine my daughter saying “I don’t know.”

Consultant: Now, I know we’ve covered a whole lot of ground in the last few minutes, but parenting can be complicated sometimes.

Father: You’re telling me? I’ve got two daughters and pretty soon they’ll be attracting boys and that will be even worse.

Consultant: Yeah. I guess I don’t need to tell you that parenting is complicated, but what I want to say is that I’ve got this tip sheet for you on praise, mirroring, character feedback, and solution-focused questions and you can take it and just try out the ideas we talked about today that are in this tip sheet. Just practice away and see what happens and we can talk about it more next week.

In this case we see the consultant squeezing lots of nuanced parenting information into a brief time period. This is a very educational approach and most likely to work after the practitioner has established a positive working relationship with parents who are in the action stage of Prochaska and DiClemente’s (2005) transtheoretical model. Even in the action stage, most parents can’t absorb all this information at once, which is why tip sheets and homework assignments can be so important.

Although the methods illustrated (praise, mirroring, character feedback, and solution-focused questions) are fairly complex, most parents intuitively understand the differences. These methods are only partly designed to improve parent–child relationships; they’re also good behavior management and self-efficacy-building techniques and so they can be used with parents who are being either too negative or too positive with their children.

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