Self-esteem isn’t something you can give another person; it’s something they need to cultivate for themselves. However, the environment you create around children can make that task easy or difficult and anything in between. If you are a parent, an educator, or any position that works with children, you can make this task easier by knowing what to attend to and what opportunities to provide.
Did you know people have five basic needs? We all have them and they exist in each of us to varying degrees. We feel extraordinary when our needs are being met. Don’t mistake me; it isn’t your job to meet children’s needs unless they are too young—infants and toddlers—to do so for themselves. Your job is to create a safe environment where children have abundant opportunities to explore and discover what satisfies their needs.
In my book, Choosing Me Now, I discuss what those things look like for me and suggest ways for you to determine what is need-satisfying for you.
Survival, Safety & Security
When a child lives in an environment where this basic need of Safety & Security isn’t being met, it will be extremely challenging for them to develop healthy self-esteem.
An environment with abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity, or substance abuse causes a child’s life to be unpredictable and unsafe. If you are involved in creating an environment for a child, whether it be at home, in school, or the community, do everything in your power to make it a safe one. Watch out for bullying, fighting and other dangerous situations. Setting clear rules and boundaries also help children to feel safe. Children need to have people in their lives they can trust… that could be you. Tell the truth and consistently be there for the child.
Another area that’s important for children under Safety & Security is the ability to control their own bodies. Children have their own sense of who they want to cuddle with and who they don’t. If we coerce them into kissing or hugging someone they don’t want to, they learn a very important message. They learn that the people that are supposed to protect them are forcing them to do things that are terrifying to them. Give children the right to make decisions about their own bodies.
But children need more than Safety & Security to be whole. They also need to feel important and meet their need for Significance. Listening to someone is one of the best ways I know to help someone feel significant. Do you listen to the children in your life? What would they say? At an early age, you can begin to teach youngsters the difference between what they can control and what they can’t. Children want things to be just and fair—however, they rarely are. They want everything and everyone to match how they envision the world, but that doesn’t always happen. Helping them accept the things they can’t change and focus on the one thing they can—themselves—is an important skill that will serve them well throughout their life.
It is also important to help children compete with themselves; instead of trying to be the best and beat everyone else, encourage and challenge them to be better today than they were yesterday. Children need to learn that everyone has inherent value and worth, but each person also has things they are particularly skilled at. Help children realize those strengths, gifts and talents they possess, but beware you aren’t pushing what you want them to pursue and ignoring the cues they’re sending you.
Freedom refers to children’s autonomy and ability to do their own thing, separate from parents or teachers. This can strike terror in the hearts of the adults because how will you ever be able to keep them safe while simultaneously providing them Freedom? You must learn to strike a delicate balance between providing the level of Freedom that child has demonstrated he or she has sufficient responsible behaviors to manage. Give children the Freedom to explore their immediate environment and allow them to discover who they are without interjecting what you think would be best. Allow children to find their own way. To learn more see my blog Parenting: Succeed by letting Go of Control.
Most children are particularly skilled at creating Joy in their lives. They will crawl in boxes, rip up magazines and chew on wrapping paper all day long. Pay attention to notice the type of Joy your child seems to prefer. Does he or she prefer play, relaxation, learning, or some combination? When you know what your child prefers, you can be certain to provide those opportunities for your child.
Connection begins with bonding to parents and siblings and later to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and, perhaps, family pets. Later, teachers enter the picture and then eventually, friends and community members. The strength of our connections has a lot to do with our self-esteem, mental health and life satisfaction. You have at least partial control over the connection you have with your children. Whatever happens, do not allow that connection to be broken. The children you care for will benefit from your efforts.
What about Me?
Another thing that is important is for you to create a need-satisfying environment for yourself. You have these same five basic needs and may have some deficits of your own. It’s challenging to try to model good self-esteem for your children when your needs are not being met. What do you need to do for yourself so you can be more effective for your children?
Check out Choosing Me Now. You may find some important answers.