(The following message from Dr. Mark Holub, child and adolescent psychiatrist in Brainerd, is a tribute to all children in commemoration of Children's Mental Health Week, May 4-10.)
In my 25 years of working therapeutically with children I have occupied the roles of social worker, recreational therapist and now child and adolescent psychiatrist. One of the most important issues I've consistently confronted in my career is a child's self-esteem.
There is an old saying that is as true today as it was generations ago: "Nothing succeeds like success." It is very important for professionals, as well as parents, to identify areas in which the child shows the most ability. In other words, more important than identifying the child's problems is identifying the areas where the child has been successful. From this point, we can reinforce this success so it may serve as a foundation for accomplishing positive results in whatever area of the child's life we are attempting an intervention.
All children need to feel they have some value to the world at large. At the very least, they need recognition. It has been my experience that focusing positive attention on the child can be a powerful instrument for helping to build self-esteem. Oftentimes, this process promotes more positive change in children than the medications I prescribe.
Each child is a unique and wonderful creation. Therefore, what motivates one child might not motivate another. Any rigid or "cookbook" approach is doomed to fail. However, there are some general principles that can help guide us in building children's self-esteem.
Recognize and build on existing intellectual, artistic and athletic strengths. While many children have learning disabilities or psychiatric conditions that result in significant school problems, all children have areas of their learning where they excel. Many children have an interest in athletics but do not have the coordination to be a star player. These interests and abilities need to be identified and nurtured. For example, participation in neighborhood games or keeping statistics for the team could be their role, rather than competing.
Teach responsibility by making your child responsible. He should start with minor responsibilities and then build up. We often underestimate the value of making children responsible for things in the home. It is important to make a big deal about the child assuming even small responsibilities and successfully completing these.
Teach decision-making skills by allowing the child concrete choices. It is much more valuable for the child to learn decision-making skills than it is to learn to be obedient. While having the child learn to be obedient may be easier in the short run, when the child is faced with choices about sexuality and drugs in adolescence, he or she will do much better with decision-making skills than with being obedient. Children with good decision-making skills are much less vulnerable to adolescent peer pressure.
Reinforce self-discipline by providing your child with a voice in determining the consequences of negative behaviors. You'll most likely be surprised by your child's choice of appropriate consequences for their behaviors. Having this level of communication is important on several fronts. For example, you might choose to reward your child when he or she stops having a tantrum. However, the child might continue to have frequent tantrums in order to get the reward.
Offer encouragement and positive feedback by being attentive to the good behaviors, as well as the bad ones. When children engage in challenging or problematic behaviors, we often spend so much time and energy on the negative behaviors that we have little energy left to praise the positives.
However, taking the additional time and energy needed to "catch them good" will be rewarded in the long run. You will become less frustrated when you control the amount and quality of attention to pay to your child.
As you go about the process of teaching these life skills one thing is certain: Your child will make mistakes. This will allow you and your child to confront the fear of making mistakes. This needs to be separated from the actual consequences of mistakes. The difference can be telling. This process is a natural part of life and the learning process.
When we help our children go through this process and see the increased self-esteem develop there is a benefit we often don't anticipate. That is, we increase our self-esteem and self-confidence as parents.
(Spotlight on Children's Mental Health is sponsored by the Crow Wing County Local Advisory Council on Children's Mental Health.)
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