Parents often ask us about how to build healthy self-esteem in a child. Moms and dads coping with the hectic schedules and the demands of daily life with a toddler or preschooler wonder if they are doing enough to make their kids feel special. We tell parents that words alone are far from being enough to really get this message through to a child (the good news is that a few poorly chosen words uttered in an angry moment are far from enough to do any lasting damage).
Transmitting a sense of value and self-worth to a child is something parents accomplish through a variety of interlocking practices that make-up attentive parenting. They include teaching lessons in a way that make sense to a child at a particular developmental stage, using discipline in a way that creates structure rather than anxiety, communicating in a way that lays the foundation for internal awareness; and, of course, expressing directly to children that they are valued and treasured. To a large part, this message is transmitted through the simple intuitive interactions that go on between parents and children all the time: smiles, hugs, words of encouragement. However, for a message to really stand out, it has to create some break in the normal flow of things. The message “you are special” does, in fact, merit special delivery. This doesn’t mean having ice cream for breakfast needs to be a daily occurrence. In fact, while that will make some five-year-olds feel special, it’s also likely to make many oppositional two-year-olds feel pleased, confused and anxious, but not special. This is where developmentally and temperamentally specific choices play a key role.
The point is to find ways to set time and attention apart to respond in special ways to what is meaningful and helpful to a particular child, at a particular point in development. Sometimes these encounters should be celebratory. Sometimes too, they can be instances of attending carefully to what is hard: taking an extra few minutes of hugging before bedtime because the afternoon visit to the park was cut short after a child misbehaved, or a parent taking time out to really apologize for losing his or her temper. Parents often avoid these tasks because they are concerned that lingering on uncomfortable feelings will make kids feel worse. What we know psychologically however, is that this is one of the most important ways that parents can convey to children that their feelings and experiences are important, which is a very powerful way of supporting the message of “you are special”.
Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations
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