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The Messages We Send

by Dr. Jennifer Moore & Dr. Zachary Stern

Healthy self-esteem is a reality that we all want for our children. While many different definitions exist to explain the essence of self-esteem, most center around the balance that is achieved between celebrating one’s strengths, accepting one’s weaknesses, and feeling a sense of equality amongst others. But how does this develop?

While many internal and external factors influence one’s self esteem, research has shown that family relationships can play a major role in how a child views him or herself. Specifically, the messages that are sent from family members can greatly impact the outcome of one’s self-esteem. So what messages are we talking about?

Every time we interact with our children, we are sending them messages. At times, we deliver these messages clearly and directly with our words. Though, quite often, these messages may be delivered implicitly through tone, facial reactions, or body language. To make things more complicated, many parent-child interactions include dual and conflicting messages between what is sent and what is received. In other words, even when the intention of a parent is to send a positive message, there are times when the message received by a child will be one of criticism and failure. Ultimately, the way your child interprets these messages is the component most responsible for whether they feel good or bad about themselves.

By way of example, in her book on childhood anxiety- You and Your Anxious Child, Dr. Anne Marie Albano describes parenting styles that, while well-intended, serve to perpetuate children’s anxious feelings and behaviors. Dr. Albano describes a situation where a child comes home from school upset, stating that other kids at school don’t like her and are mean to her. She then describes the potential reactions, based on parenting style. The overcontrolling parent decides to march into school the next day and demand a change of classroom. While the intention here is surely good and to be helpful, there is a strong possibility that the message the child receives is simply, “You can’t handle this situation.” An alternative reaction might be sitting down with the child, exploring with her what happened at school, and coaching her as to what she can do to solve the problem. The message the child hears this time is, “I know you can handle this. Let’s figure this out together.”

When considering how to build up our children’s self-esteem, increasing our awareness and mindfulness about the messages that we are sending could be extremely beneficial. By not only focusing on intentions, but also on how children are likely to receive messages, parents may begin to feel a strong sense of empowerment to promote positivity effectively with each and every interaction.

Below is a list of some of the most common messages that are sent from parents to children, both negative and positive. Try reflecting on your personal interactions with your child and see what type of messages you typically send.

“I can’t trust you” vs. “I want to trust you and I do.”
“You’re not trying hard enough” vs. “I am so proud of how much effort you are putting in.”
“You’ll never be able to do that” vs. “If you want to, I’m certain that you will.”
“You could have done better” vs. “I’m so impressed with what you were able to do.”

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