Saturday, January 22, 2011

Self Esteem, Girls Edition

(image courtesy of the CW network and wikia here)
While visiting a friend today for a playdate, I saw how well her 6 year old daughter helped her out with little tasks here and there. And I thought to myself, "wow, this little girl is starting to learn to increase her self esteem already!"  Now, although she is definitely already a proud girl with a lot of esteem and loves to call herself a little Diva, self-esteem doesn't really start being a challenge until right around the Junior High grades.

I remember it well. 1st-5th grades, I could have cared less what people thought of me and what I wore. Or if I was a 'cool' kid, 'popular' or a 'nerd.' Developmentally, kids are just not there yet before junior high. That's not to say at the elementary school age that children don't pick on each other, call them names or get bullied. But then came Junior High. There's something about girls and self esteem that comes into play right around that 11-12 year old mark. And it's not pretty.

Okay, before I go any further with this topic, let me address the terms self esteem vs. self respect. The term 'self esteem' has been used for years to mean what most of us consider 'self respect.' Some take 'self esteem' literally to mean vanity and a large ego and 'self respect' to mean proper sense of dignity and self-worth. But going forward in this post I am using the term 'self esteem' to mean self respect, because that is the term we all use and are used to hearing. I am defining 'self esteem' to mean someone with a secure sense of self and self respect.

Now, let me first go into a little text book information to explain a little bit about how kids progress with self esteem.

In psychology and child development, there are stages kids go through socially and cognitively. One of the famous psychologists, Erik Erikson, came up with stages where he believed there were certain tasks at each stage- and you could go one way or the other.

His stages start at infancy with the task of: Trust vs. Mistrust: the main task is 'trusting' your environment, or 'mistrusting.' If your caregivers are inconsistent, your needs are not met, etc then you can end up not trusting the environment.

The next stage is toddler with the task of: autonomy vs. shame/doubt. If a toddler does not develop independence, then he may go on to have low self esteem, and not trust in his abilities to do things on his own, etc.

I won't bore you with all of the stages, but you get the idea. Skipping forward to where the child reaches the preteen/adolescent stage: identity vs. role confusion.  All kids go through trying on different roles- maybe dying their hair black and trying the punk look, or getting into the computer nerd hobbies phase. This is a normal part of development so that they can try on different roles in life. This is when they are all of a sudden taking on new roles such as a student, athlete, boyfriend, sibling all at the same time as handling peer pressure. A lot to handle!  Forming their identities in life is stressful and a very vulnerable time for their self esteem.

Now back to the topic of self esteem in girls. When they reach that age around 11-12, they start comparing themselves to other girls. Puberty hits and they start to wonder if their nose is going to get any bigger? Or if they will always be a part of the itty bitty titty committee. Not to mention this is the age that they start wanting to call boys, flirting begins, and every parent's worst nightmare. Why can't they stay 5 years-old forever?

So to prepare our children for this awkward and not so fun stage, I believe it's important for us parents to start at an early age. And like the example I was going for in the beginning of this post, the goal is to give our children little tiny tasks that they can accomplish with success.

Such as:

-Have your 2 year old walk her used Kleenex over to the trash can and throw it in there, all by herself. Huge task for her, I know, but she will well be on her way to feeling proud of herself for her accomplishment.

-Have your 3 year old put her little plate in the dishwasher while you are doing the dishes.

-Have your 6 year old pour her cereal into her bowl and even pour her own milk. But remember, there has to be room for error too. If they spill, no shaming, just clean it up and try it again. She will be so happy with her success!

-Have your 8 year old help set the table.

Get the idea? (oh, and you can also do this with little boys too)  :)

Also, when they complete tasks, don't forget to tell them how proud they should be of themselves, and to give them positive encouragement.

Beyond giving them tasks they can succeed at, you can also start with the whole body image talk by NOT talking negatively about you and your body. Constantly hearing how fat you are, how you need to workout, how you haven't been to Spin Class in over a week and need to lose weight- all of these seemingly innocent comments can make a girl conscious of these things without realizing it. She will see that you are not happy with your body and start noticing things that are not perfect on her. Gasp! So remember to talk positively and to send the message that we all need to love ourselves regardless of any imperfection!

Whew, tough topic as there is no easy fix or answer, but being prepared is a good start. Has anyone already run into this issue with their daughter(s)?  Any good tips you can give us?


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