Building Self-Esteem with Love, Affection and Attention
In addition to clear, open communication with their parents, children also require attention and affection - in a word, love - from their parents if they are to develop healthy self-esteem. Parents need to celebrate their children, pay attention to them and actually demonstrate their love in concrete ways. During middle childhood, children may not be as eager to share hugs and cuddles as they were when they were younger. However, parents can still show love and affection in other ways: Dad can squeeze his son's shoulder as they pass each other in the hall; Mom can sit next to her daughter on the couch and share popcorn while they watch a movie together. It is not enough to tell children they are loved; love must be acted out in order for it to become real. Though they may not be able to verbalize their understanding, children will generally be able to intuit disconnects between words and actions and will appreciate that something isn't right.
Apart from affectionate touch and speech, a vital way parents can express and demonstrate love for their children is to remember and regularly celebrate important moments in children's lives. For instance, parents can celebrate a child's birthday, their special accomplishments, and meaningful religious traditions. Parents can vocally express pride and pleasure as they review photographs, home movies, scrap books and other keepsakes of their children's lives. Doing so communicates to children that they belong to the family or larger community and that they are special enough to remember and celebrate. Memories of such celebrations go on to become foundations for children's happy identity and self-story.
For some families, sharing a child's story can be an uncomfortable or even painful event. This is especially true when the child's story involves loss, such as the loss of a family member or other significant family events such as adoption, infertility, divorce, murder, incarceration, addiction, war, etc. In such cases, parents should resist the temptation to ignore or minimize difficult past events and tell the child's whole story, taking care to highlight positive aspects of that story and to explain difficult aspects of the story in an age appropriate manner. Furthermore, parents should reassure children that the painful events are not the children's fault.
Ideally, the love that parents demonstrate for their children will have an unconditional quality to it; meaning that it does not get withdrawn should children fail to succeed at any particular endeavor. As was also the case with regard to criticism of children, it is critical that children appreciate that they are loved and accepted for their being; their existence, and not merely for their ability to compete and win. In other words, children need to know they are loved regardless of whether or not their parents are pleased with their behavior, because they got an "A," or because they are the star player on the football team. Genuine unconditional love, offered during times of failure as well as success, communicates to children at an emotional level that they are fundamentally acceptable people. Conditional love, offered during times of success and withdrawn during times of failure, communicates to children that they are basically unacceptable unless they win; a fundamentally anxiety provoking position to be in. While the latter may encourage children to be fierce competitors (or simply fiercely self-attacking) they will also be fundamentally unhappy competitors who compete not out of love or interest, but rather out of fear.
Offering children unconditional love and affection for their children is not the same thing as passively standing back and letting children do anything they want! It is important that parents do expect children to work hard, and meet and exceed expectations. It is okay for children to be offered extra praise when they succeed at a difficult task. It is simply not a good idea to withdraw affection and basic acceptance when tasks are not successfully met.
Parents' expectations of children need to be realistic, balanced and appropriate to their developmental level. Children should be challenged to meet expectations but it should be possible for children to meet them provided they put in effort and work. Healthy high expectations will tend to help children develop a healthy high self-esteem. In contrast, expectations which are absent or set too low, or expectations which are impossibly and impractically high will tend to retard children's motivation and produce a lower self-esteem. When children feel their parents have set extremely low expectations, or no expectations of them at all, they may conclude that they're incapable or helpless or not important enough to develop key skills and characteristics. When parents set overly high perfectionist expectations, children may conclude that they cannot succeed. Expectations that are either too high or two low will tend to lower children's confidence for trying new things and challenging themselves.
By setting realistic expectations on their children, and by providing consistent unconditional love and affection while also offering consequences for poor choices, parents provide children with an optimal learning environment which maximizes their ability to learn and to develop a healthy self-esteem. While rewards are provided for success, and failures are painful, failure does not result in utter rejection. There is never a question of rejection. Such an environment provides a secure base which protects children's motivation and curiosity while at the same time encouraging their learning, experimentation and mastery.