Helping Your Young Child Build Self-Esteem
For many children, both with and without learning disabilities (LD), self-esteem is a powerful predictor of success. Social or emotional problems are not the cause but rather the consequence of academic frustration and failure. Not all students with an LD like dyslexia have problems with social competence and self-esteem, but many do. Daily struggles with the challenges posed by a learning disability can erode the enthusiasm and confidence that make learning, at all ages, fun.
Positive Self-Esteem Is a Powerful Thing
Your child’s positive self-esteem is as important to his or her success in school as is the mastery of individual academic skills. And there's no question that doing something well helps a child feel better about themselves, their accomplishments, and their potential to succeed in the future. Learning disabilities, however, often pose formidable hurdles to positive self-esteem, and these in turn contribute to a hard-to-break cycle of self-doubt, frustration, and failure.
The Importance of Social Competence
Self-esteem is shaped by several factors: how well children get along with peers and teachers, how they seem themselves in comparison to their peers, and how well they negotiate relationships with parents and siblings. When a child experiences difficulties in any of these areas—due to the LD—it can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
Helping a child to build social competence is a key to helping them become self-reliant and confident. Children who demonstrate this quality seem to know how to move from person to person or group to group. And they’re seemingly more relaxed and at ease regardless of whether they are talking or listening. They also seem to demonstrate traits such as:
- knowing how to initiate and maintain positive relationships with peers and others;
- knowing how to interpret social situations and judge how to interact without drawing negative attention to themselves;
- engaging in interactions without being disruptive or drawing negative attention to themselves;
- sustaining attention and contributing to conversations; and
- controlling their impulses and delaying the need to draw attention to themselves, even in well-intended ways.
These are the traits that often pose the greatest challenges to individuals with LD. If your child seems to have trouble in any of these areas, it’s time to take action.
Strategies to Help Build Self-Esteem
Here are some ways you can help your child develop the strength and skills they need to cope successfully with the challenges they face.
- Communicate with respect. Don't interrupt or put down your child; answer their questions in a respectful way.
- Find time to give your child your undivided attention. Children feel loved when we spend one-on-one time with them.
- Accept and love your child for who they are. This will allow them to feel more secure in reaching out to others and learning how to solve problems.
- Give your child a chance to contribute, for example, to a conversation, to family chores, or to planning a fun family activity. This communicates your faith in their abilities and gives them a sense of responsibility.
- Treat your child’s mistakes as learning experiences. When you overreact to mistakes, your child will tend to avoid taking risks rather than to disappoint you. That can also lead them to blaming others for their problems.
- Emphasize your child’s strengths, and be specific whenever possible. Help them to really understand and “own” their strengths. When your child feels a sense of accomplishment and pride in their ability to do something, they’ll have more confidence to persevere when they face challenges.
- Encourage your child to solve problems and make decisions. Avoid telling them what to do.
- Discipline to teach. Do not discipline your child in a way that intimidates or humiliates them.
The Bottom Line
Throughout your child’s life span, self-esteem will be a critical ingredient for their happiness and success. Even with the best experiences in school and at home, young children are especially vulnerable to attacks on their feelings of self-worth. And as we all know, memories of threats to self-esteem can linger for years, even decades. Individuals with LD are especially vulnerable to these threats by the very nature of their having LD. Parents (and others) who provide intentional, effective instruction and meaningful support in building a child’s self-esteem will help create a roadmap to their child’s long-term well-being.
- No One to Play With: The Social Side of Learning Disabilities by Betty Osman
- Learning Disabilities and ADHD: A Family Guide to Living and Learning Together by Betty Osman
- The Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Tool
- Jarvis Clutch — Social Spy by Mel Levine and Jarvis Clutch