The answer lies in simply “being with.”
Parents are on the front lines for developing self-worth in their children. And yet, the power and importance of a parent’s connectedness to their child is often underestimated. According to attachment gurus like Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Bruce Perry, secure attachments are instrumental in building self-esteem and worth. Conveying to your child that she is precious, giving her a voice, and sharing fun experiences with her are just the beginning of creating a foundation for self-esteem. It is important to understand that as children develop, they will continue to test parents. But what they desperately need is a safe adult who will be attuned to their needs and emotionally present for them.
With high advances in technology, it is often difficult to be emotionally present, especially when we are connected to five different devices. But, setting electronics aside and just “being with” is an important element of fostering self-worth in children. Because when you put your phone down, you send the message that “You are worth it.”
Parents juggle so many activities, finances, navigation, scheduling, cooking, cleaning and teaching children that it is often easy to dismiss or deny a child from feeling a certain feeling without even realizing that you are doing it.
As parents, we often try to “save” children we care about. When they come to an adult with a difficult feeling about themselves — such as “I am stupid” — it is almost an instant reaction to proclaim, “No, you are not. You are smart!” Naturally, adults often feel uncomfortable hearing their child’s negative feelings and want their child to feel worthy, so they respond in a more matter-of-fact way. But when you abruptly dismiss a child’s feelings, it does not mean that the child will just stop believing that they are stupid. When a parent responds this way, they are denying that the child has that feeling, which can be counter-productive to building their self-worth.
So what do you do when a child comes to you with a statement like this?
The first recommendation is to explore the feeling with empathy — for instance, by saying, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry you feel that way. That must really be hard.” This validation shows that you are willing to “be with” your child in their hard feeling. As Dr. Siegel suggests, connect before you redirect. Then it is really important for parents to be able to help their child explore “why” they have those feelings. Parents can respond with, “Can you tell me reasons why you feel that way?”
After your child explains their reasons, challenge your child on how they came to such a difficult conclusion. You can use your own or others’ experiences to relate to your child. “Well, Mommy sometimes forgets,” you might say. “Does that make me stupid?” When your child says “No,” this is an opportunity to offer evidence as to why your child is not stupid. Saying “I noticed you are smart when, or I was proud of you when…” can help to convey that you see your child’s strengths even when they are stuck on a feeling.
Parents, however, do not always have to offer solutions. Sometimes, the simple act of “being with” your child and not offering solutions can be more powerful. When you choose this route, you send the message that “I hear you” and “You are worth it to me.”
This approach is more time-consuming than saying, “No, you are not. You are smart.” However, shutting down a feeling or thought does not mean the thought won’t come back the next time a child experiences a challenge such as homework, an embarrassing event, or not getting the role they wanted in the school play.
It is also important for parents to model appropriate self-talk in situations where mistakes are made on their part. So instead of shouting at yourself or mumbling under your breath in the Target parking lot because you forgot to buy something, you can model positive self-talk. This modeling will help your child integrate brain development with positive self-worth. For instance, you might say, “Daddy is angry right now because I forgot something on the list. I feel forgetful and am having a hard time with this feeling, but I know that I won’t always remember everything and it is okay.”
By “being with” your child, you help to develop a secure attachment that in turn builds positive self-worth and helps your child become strong and confident. Children deserve full attention, deserve to be validated (wherever they may be), have safe adults modeling positive self-talk, and have loving parents that will challenge them to believe that they are worth it.
Carly Schrimpl, LCSW | Contract Therapist at Holt-Sunny Ridge