Parents spend a great
deal of time worrying about being consistent (“Should I always
enforce family rules? Should I give in after I’ve said no?”), but
there’s really only one thing they have to be absolutely consistent
about—letting their child know he’s loved, valued, and important. A
child who grows up hearing that message will develop a healthy
self-image. A child who doesn’t will have negative feelings about
Parents can’t compromise when it comes to giving their child
feedback about his basic nature and worth. He needs to hear again
and again that his parents accept him as he is, with his strengths
and weaknesses, personality, interests, and appearance. Parents
should encourage their child to feel good about himself and his
That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t show anger and disappointment
when their child misbehaves. Parents have to set limits and tell
their child what they expect. In fact, when they do set limits, they
let him know they care a great deal about him and the way he acts.
However, there’s a big difference between expressing disapproval of
misbehavior and expressing general disapproval of a child. For
whatever reasons, some parents have a hard time accepting their
child. They may have unrealistically high expectations and, as a
result, constantly feel that he is failing. They themselves may have
received negative messages as children and may now unconsciously
treat their child as they were treated.
Some parents appear to favor one of their children over another.
Although it may be easy to say, “I wish you were more like your
brother,” or, “I wish you did as well in science as your sister,”
parents should recognize the harm such statements cause. Rather than
motivate a child to do better, these comparisons, with their implied
put-downs, make him feel bad about himself and angry. He may only be
motivated to get back at the sibling who seems to enjoy more
To see how important feedback is to self-image, consider the way you
were treated as a child. If your parents valued you as a lovable,
worthwhile person, you probably entered adulthood feeling good about
yourself. If you received negative messages, you’ve probably
struggled at times with a poor self-image.
What your child needs from you is acceptance, praise, and
compliments on his strengths. If he never seems to please you,
reconsider your expectations. They may be too high, or your
parenting style may be too demanding and high-pressured. You may
find that, by being more realistic, you’re better able to accept him
as he is and give consistent, positive messages.
As you think about his self-concept, you may be worried if he’s shy.
It’s a common belief that a shy child has a negative self-image, but
that’s often not the case. Many children who are reserved by nature
are as confident as their more outgoing peers. One teacher told a
parent, “You daughter may be quiet, but she’s certainly confident
when it comes to doing her work and making friends.” Let your shy
child know that you love him as much as you love his more
extroverted siblings, and that he has as much to offer. As a result,
he’ll develop a healthy self-image.
A child with low self-esteem will exhibit a number of symptoms.
Rather than say he feels bad about himself, he might struggle with
friendships, compete excessively with peers and siblings, misbehave,
and not work up to his ability in school.
If you’re concerned about his self-image or have questions about the
impact your attitudes have on him, talk to a school counselor or
therapist. It’s much easier to resolve a child’s negative feelings
when he’s young than it is to wait until the adolescent years.