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“This Child Has Low Self-Esteem”… Do They? What Is ‘Self-Esteem’ Anyway?!

My son had his eight birthday during half-term and we were lucky enough to be in Madeira at the time.
The disappointment at missing Trick or Treat was softened by the gift of a Hallowe’en costume which he decided to wear that evening for dinner anyway, despite it not yet being 31st October, or Hallowe’en being a thing in Madeira.

But for a kid who can be this outlandish ‘who-cares-what-anyone-else-thinks?’, he can also lack self-confidence and be painfully self-conscious.

And it got me to thinking about this thing we call self-esteem, because it’s not as simple as our children just having ‘low’ or ‘high’ self-esteem. What does it even mean? What is ‘self-esteem’ anyway?

There’s no commonly agreed definition about what constitutes ‘low’ and ‘high’ self-esteem’ because, whether it’s a short period of time or an ongoing state of being, we don’t tend to think about how our is struggling with self-esteem anywhere near as much as we feel it.

Poor self-esteem affects the majority of children at some point, for all kinds of reasons. And it’s not always obvious; many children (and grown-ups) look self-assured and outgoing on the outside, because their inner-world is so fragile.

Getting under the skin of self-esteem deserves much more exploration than I can offer in an blog post, but there are so many ways we can strengthen it just through the everyday exchanges and interactions we have with the children we both live and work with.
Here are three of them;

1) Who am I?
A sense of identity is learned, and the environments and experiences we provide for children as they grow up profoundly impact whether our children develop a positive or negative self-image, if at all. 

A strong self-image doesn’t come from wearing a super-hero cape and believing ‘they can do anything’.
It comes from having loads of opportunities to develop a sense of individuality, which might mean their perfectly imperfect flaws as well!

The more  children can explore and learn about themselves; their characteristics and personality, their preferences and strengths; the stronger the foundation for good self-esteem. 
Because if you have no ‘sense of self’, how do you strengthen any self; self-awareness, self-belief or self-esteem?

2) Give Agency and Autonomy
Children aren’t typically given many decisions of their own. Just going to school, for example, determines where they spend much of their time, who with, what they do, what they learn, where they sit, what they wear, what they eat and when… Not great for a ‘sense of self’ and not great for personal agency.
Having a sense of ‘personal power’ in their lives is paramount, because knowing how to live a full life comes from feeling that what happens to you is determined by you.

Giving children and young people choices, autonomy and freedom doesn’t mean you’re undermining our authority.
It means you’re teaching the children you live and work with to be an active decision-maker in their own lives, shaping the belief that they’re in charge of and accountable for themselves; ultimately that they’re competent and capable human beings.

3) Foster Belonging
At birth, the core of our most primitive human need is connection; we’d die without it. But that need stays with us for life.
For any of us, at any age, the sense of belonging -or the lack of it is profound. Uncomfortable as it may be to recall, we’ve all experienced that feeling of not being accepted and it can be powerful (and painful!)

Especially if they’re struggling to achieve a sense of belonging somewhere in their lives; finding it hard to fit in at school or experiencing a ruptured relationship etc.; nurturing that feeling of safety-that they’re accepted and acceptable, loved and lovable-is something we can do to support our kids’ self-esteem, every day.

This is why settings which take a ‘Restorative Relationships’ approach to behaviour management etc., tend to be much more effective than those which promote exclusion or somehow create a divide between children and their peers.

Yes, at some point they’ll need the resilience to accept those challenges are an ongoing part of life, but they’ll do that better equipped with good self-esteem.

So, ignore anyone who says you’re too kind to the children you teach or too soft on the children who are struggling, or that you indulge your own children with too much love (not to be confused with ‘stuff’!); we can’t let children know how much they belong, and are accepted and loved enough!

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