Know emotional abuse

Last Updated 25 November 2011, 16:14 IST

The self-esteem of our children is something we parents pay the least attention to. We worry about their food, clothes, discipline,  health, marks, extracurricular accomplishments, and the lack of them. But how many of us worry about our child’s self-esteem?

Low self-esteem in children can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, under achievement, fear of failure, fear of intimacy, fear of happiness, substance abuse and aggression. It influences a child’s ability to learn, grow, be creative, relate to others, make smart choices in life, and achieve goals. Self-esteem is thus the most important determinant of a person’s mental health and the most important thing a parent can focus on.

So what is self-esteem? It’s our confidence in our ability to handle life successfully, to think and understand the world, to make accurate judgments, decisions and choices. It does not mean a lack of self-doubt; what it means is that if you make a mistake, you’re confident enough to bounce back.

Another component of self-esteem is self-respect — that you judge yourself worthy of living and reaping the rewards of your efforts. It’s in knowing that you’re a good person, deserving of happiness and success. Lack of self-respect impedes an individual’s ability to be happy. It means that you may not aim to achieve anything much, because you don’t think you deserve it. It means the person will not stand up for himself and assert his needs and boundaries.

Self-esteem is the way we think and feel about ourselves. It’s the feeling that, “I’m important”, “I’m worthy”, “My needs are important” and “I’m good enough and accept myself, with all my strengths and weaknesses”.  How we operate in the workplace, how we deal with people, how high we are likely to rise, how much we achieve, with whom we fall in love, how we interact with our spouse, children or friends.    

How is self-esteem shaped?

It’s shaped by messages (verbal and non-verbal) we receive from significant adults early on in life; by messages we receive based on cultural traditions; and, by our own ideas, beliefs, and values. As a child, if you’ve been told by your parents that you aren’t good enough, you step into the workplace, marriage, and other relationships, believing that you’re not good enough. You spend your time trying to prove yourself, to yourself and to others. If your aim is to prove that you’re ‘enough’, the battle is lost the day you concede the issue is debatable. Your motive must not be to prove yourself, but to live out your possibilities. Your motive must be self-expression, not self-justification.

Low self-esteem has many faces. We only think of physical or sexual abuse that evoke traumatic feelings of powerlessness. But, often we make our children feel that they can’t do anything right; that they don’t count; that they are alone; that they are terrible; that they are unlovable; that they are a failure; that they are hopeless; and, that they hate themselves. If your child ends up feeling like this, then, it is a case of emotional abuse.
And this is a scary thought since all of us are probably guilty of this, without even realising it.

How to nurture self-esteem

Children need to make sense of their experiences. Within a family, this means adults who walk the talk; say what they mean, and mean what they say. It means rules that are consistent, understandable and fair. It means parents who are emotionally stable and who acknowledge their mistakes. A child’s repeated experience of terror at the hands of adults can have lasting, harmful consequences.  The greater a child’s fear and the earlier it’s experienced, the harder it is to build a healthy sense of self.

An effective parent can convey anger and disappointment without withdrawing love. As a parent, do you demand perfection and focus only on the outcome, or do you acknowledge the effort? If love is linked to performance, the child understands “I am not enough as I am” and no self-esteem can be built on a foundation of not being enough. Unconditional love is the cornerstone of self-esteem.

Acceptance of one’s thoughts and feelings is conveyed not by agreement, or chastising, lecturing, and insulting, but by listening and acknowledging. Be careful of what you say to your children, and how you say it. When parents convey love, appreciation, empathy, acceptance and respect, they make a child feel visible.  

The ultimate objective is to make a child independent. We must teach children to identify and set goals, and assist them in achieving them — not by doing the work, but by providing the coaching needed. Our praise must be genuine. Criticism must be directed at the child’s behaviour, not at the child. No good is ever achieved by assaulting a child’s self-esteem. If we can rebuke without demeaning a child’s dignity, and can respect a child’s self-esteem even when angry, we’ve achieved the most challenging task of parenting.

Making mistakes is integral to learning. How we respond to mistakes, ours or our children’s, is critical. We don’t need to pretend that we’re perfect. We just need to be accepting of ourselves with all our strengths and weaknesses, and be accepting of them with all their strengths and weaknesses. Teaching your child to handle stress is also important. This is a direct spin-off of how we handle stress. Do we welcome change, or do we fear it; do we feel in control, or do we become helpless; do we find solutions or are we stuck at defining the problem; do we tackle tough decisions, or do we put them off?

It’s time for us, adults, to think about the impact we’re having on the self-image of the children in our care. Over 75 per cent of Indian children who come for counselling, struggle with self-esteem. It leaves me wondering how we could go so horribly wrong with our parenting. How could we, who value our children the most, not teach them to value themselves? 

(Published 25 November 2011, 16:08 IST)

Follow us on