Dr Holan Liang is a consultant child psychiatrist, mother of two, and occasional blogger, and she draws on her years of experience both as a professional and, more recently, as a parent in this practical guide to raising strong, resilient and happy children. Here, the author of Inside Out Parenting shares how to parent, positively.
How to build self-esteem in children
I’m often asked this question at dinner parties by other parents, but often when I enquire, the child in question in need of self-esteem is a teenager, and by and large, although self-esteem can always be improved throughout the life-span, the most critical time (early childhood 0-7 years) has already passed, which is why my book focuses on this age group.
There is a ‘sensitive period’ between ages 0-4 years where what happens to a child will have more impact than at any other age. In the first years of your child’s life the more warmth and understanding that is shown to them, the more likely they are to develop good self-esteem by developing a sense that they are loved. Care, love and understanding is not just about meeting physical needs (food, nappy changes), but smiles, cuddles, talking, praising, comforting, laughing, joking and spending fun time together. If a child’s first experience of a relationship is one where they feel that they are someone that others enjoy spending time with (rather than tolerate while checking emails), then they are set up for life!
Talking and Listening
As children develop their language ability, how we talk to and about our children day-to-day can start to shape their psyche, like the gentle but unremitting waves along a cliff-face. Make sure that you try to shape your child with abundant praise, optimism and supportive comments. This should be realistic rather than over the top. Children with good self-esteem built in infancy are then more able to manage a dose of realism as they grow older.
I think that those three words: ‘I love you’ also matter immensely.
Young children may not always understand nuance or be able to interpret your behaviour so verbalizing your sentiments explicitly is important. The more you spell out your love, the better: ‘I will love you if you are nice to me. I will love you even if you are horrible to me. Even when I am cross at you, I love you. I love you for being you. You will always be beautiful and smart in my eyes. I am proud of you for being you. You will always have my support. I am always here for you. Nothing will change that. I love you.’ With young children; it’s good to leave them with no doubt.
Equally important to the way we talk to our children, is the way we listen and understand. Parents who are close to their children can often finish their children’s sentences in the way old married couples do. Talking about, listening and exchanging experiences and feelings regularly is the basis of being able to know and understand someone. Children’s experiences and feelings are just as significant as adult experiences, even if they might seem less important. A child being told off by a teacher will hurt as much to them as an adult being rebuked by their boss. We need to show children the same concern and understanding. Reserving judgement and criticism and replacing with understanding will allow channels of communication to remain open throughout the life-span.
Once children start school and an element of independence is encouraged, our roles as parents change from care-taker to cheerleader. We can’t always be physically there for our children all the time but if it’s possible, make sure that a family member is there every time it matters: school plays, sports days, class assemblies, concerts and parents’ days.
If no one can make it, make sure you explain why and how sorry you are that you couldn’t make it. There is nothing sadder than the desperate faces of children searching for their absent parents in the audience. Crucially, ask your children about missed events afterwards so they recognize that you were there in spirit if not body.
Even if you are present on the special occasions; part of ‘love’ is about sharing the mundane. Being around at least some of the time to catch the joke, the thought, the upset in real time. Some things are lost in the retelling. You can love from a distance but can you make someone feel loved without really spending much time with them? If a child feels love, self-esteem will follow.
There has been growing interest in the area of children’s resilience and children with good self-esteem can withstand failure better than others. As a child becomes independent we can foster resilience by encouraging attempt and effort; moving from esteem praise to functional praise which becomes the basis of Carole Dweck’s Growth Mindset. Get children off to a good start by teaching them that everyone is fearful and fails and there is no shame in this; rather glory in accepting challenges and confronting fears. How? Tell them about your own failures and show them that you are not afraid to try and fail.
This last suggestion may suggest what I feel is perhaps the most critical contributor to self-esteem in children: our own self-esteem and self-acceptance. Children often reflect and/ or model the self-esteem of their parents. If you suffer from low-self-esteem, one of the best ways to impart good self-esteem on your children is to improve your own. If you are in a good place, this will be reflected in every aspect of your parenting and will flow straight into your child. Take time to invest in your own self-esteem and happiness. The happiness, strength and bravery we feel will leave its mark on our children.
Dr Holan Liang’s book Inside Out Parenting offers an empowering approach to parenting that champions building a strong base of ‘inside things’, such as self-esteem, so that the ‘outside things’, such as achievement in musical exams and academia, has better meaning for your child. Mistakes will be inevitable, but it is how children cope and learn from them that is important rather than failure itself.
Unpicking the barrage of information available, this book helps readers to develop parenting strategies best suited to each individual child rather than presenting a catch-all method. Seeking to support parents rather than criticise them, Dr Liang has written an accessible, invaluable and enjoyable guide to raising healthy, well-rounded children with a strong core identity who are ready to take on the world…
Dr Holan Liang arrived in Wales from Taiwan aged 3 where she attended the local state primary school, later her family moved to London. She is now a consultant psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and Honorary Consultant at Great Ormond Street. She lives in London with her husband and two children.