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8 Ways to Help Your Kids Not Hate Themselves

by Anneli RufusFebruary 09, 2018
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father and kid with kite

evgenyatamanenko/Thinkstock

Help kids build and maintain confidence, empathy, joy, and self-compassion.

Raising happy, healthy kids is one of the world's holiest and hardest jobs. That's why some of us never had kids: because we feared that we might do to them what was done to us: I mean those countless big and little injuries that stole our self-esteem: inflicted in what should have been our safest places, our own homes, by those we loved the most, our parents — often accidentally. 

Thinking we could not guarantee our would-be children's safety, we made what some would call the ultimate sacrifice, but some would call the ultimate dodge: We never let them exist.

Parenting puts lives into your hands: soft, fragile, watchful little lives that exult over snails and stars and popsicle-stick puppets. Brand-new souls as absorbent as sponges: What could possibly go wrong? 

Millions of adults with low self-esteem could answer that. 

No hundred-percent perfect parent ever lived, but certain parental habits and quirks can help kids build and maintain confidence, empathy, joy, and self-compassion. Other habits and quirks have the opposite effect. Take this from one who learned the hard way. Here are some pointers to help your kids not hate themselves. 

Don't insult yourself when your kids can see or hear you. Don't poke yourself in the gut and say you're fat. Don't bonk yourself on the head and say you're dumb. Not even as a joke. Kids imitate their parents, of whom they think they are semi-replicas, so please spare them a lifetime of deeming themselves as bad or gross or unacceptable as they believe you deem yourself.

Don't let them think your love is based on their "achievements." High grades, social status, championships won: Nothing more thoroughly dissolves a sense of self than the belief that one is valued not simply for whom one is but because one does what others demand — based on their insecurities or unfulfilled desires. That you never became a chess master is not a problem for your child to fix.

Don't feed them a steady stream of mixed messages. You're so smart. ... How could you be so stupid? I'm proud of you. ... Shame on you! Feel free to tell me anything at all. ... What?! That's disgusting. It's hard to stay consistent, especially when you're angry or upset. But mixed messages from the ultimate trusted authorities — parents — spur chronic, corrosive uncertainty.

Don't constantly criticize their friends. Hearing you bash their buddies can make kids mistrustful: of you, those friends, and themselves. Mike SEEMS funny and fair to ME. Am I a fool for liking him? Your criticisms might be fueled not by simple parental caution but by envy, because as a kid you never had close friends, or because you miss being your baby's best pal. 

Don't imply that every conversation or action is a test. Which they can either pass or fail, as judged by others, usually you, with failure meaning isolation, punishment or lack of love. Believing that at any given moment, without warning, one must prove oneself and "pass" — again, again, again — simply to feel permitted to exist is a recipe for lifelong anxiety.

Don't ignore them. Ask them what they're doing, playing, thinking, making. Do this even if you're busy and/or strapped for time. Considering such questions, answering them in the glow of knowing that you're curious, helps kids value their own ideas and activities. 

Don't take that questioning too far. A little gentle curiosity goes a long way. Letting it mutate into cross-examination because you cannot bear the idea of your offspring having privacy or keeping secrets shatters — maybe forever — whatever hazy early boundaries they've struggled to attain.

Don't viciously badmouth their other parent. Even if you hate that person, why confuse a child who doesn't? If loving or respecting the other parent doesn't endanger the child, why extinguish that warmth just because you don't share it? A child who identifies with that parent will internalize your insults. If you can't say anything nice, STFU. It's better than fake "praise" such as How nice of Mom to trim your hair FOR ONCE.

Don't mock them. Never make them try to read your mind. Don't call them by negative nicknames. Oh, does that seem obvious to you? To some, it's not. Love them without having to terrify them. Conditional love is like a silky sweater lined with hooks. Treat your kids as you would want to be treated, were you tiny and tender and believed nearly everything you heard. 


Anneli Rufus’ latest work, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, was released by Tarcher Penguin in May 2014 and continues this path, addressing self-esteem.


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