February 1, 2012

A Word on Developmental Psychology and Self-Esteem

By Ashton Brunn
Augustana College Student Intern
Child Abuse Council

It is commonly stated that self-esteem is the greatest gift that a parent can give to a child, and considering how society is today, this has never been more true. To truly succeed in a world where only the best students get accepted into good colleges, and only the most efficient workers maintain their jobs while others get cut, it is paramount that our children be confident, well-rounded and capable. As parents, mentors and teachers, it is our duty to not just instruct our children, but to show them the way.

Psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that children journey through successive stages of cognitive development, each which presents an important step to cultivating their adult personalities. In the first 18 months, the child builds his or her sense of trust and mistrust in the world, and more specifically whether their needs will be met. From ages two to five, the next two stages are suggested to have the greatest impact on a growing self-esteem: first is autonomy versus shame and doubt, then initiative versus guilt. These are important because they pertain to how the child will perceive the competence of their own actions, as well as how others will value their efforts. The best way to deal with children at this time is to not discount their abilities simply because they are young; allow them to help, to do and to experiment. If they make a mess or a mistake, it is no big deal. Comfort them, tell them it is okay and clean it up together. Do not foster the feeling of guilt for trying, or the child may proceed poorly through the preadolescent stage of industry versus inferiority.

It is damaging to a developing self-esteem to say, “you are too little/young/weak/etc.” Although this may seem to be true of many situations, there is often still a place for education, bonding and industry. If you are doing grown-up work and a child takes interest, give them a task that is easily manageable and most importantly safe. These could be tasks like holding something for you, bringing a tool, measuring flour, sweeping, or many others. Teach them car parts, how to bake and otherwise involve them in as many activities mundane or otherwise as possible. And always thank them, encourage accomplishment and entertain questions that they may (and will) have.

Successful passage through these stages will set the child up for healthy adolescence. They will learn to be industrious within safe boundaries set by the parents, which will aid in the development of a clear and well-adjusted identity. To achieve this, parents must be fully engaged in their children’s lives without smothering, sheltering or becoming what is commonly known as “helicoptering.” Children should have a great deal of choice, but not complete free reign. They must learn through experience what it is like to succeed, fail, set and achieve goals, and otherwise that the key to a good life is autonomous and responsible choices.

Children should be raised with unconditional positive regard. This means that regardless of their actions, they must know and feel that they are loved. Parents should strive to use reinforcement and not punishment, because this will achieve the desired behavior without instilling fear, shame and/or inferiority. This can be facilitated by avoiding a trap that parents fall into far too often, and that is to not just tell them that they did something wrong, but to actually show them what is correct. Children are excellent observers, but poor interpreters, so it is very important to lead by example and refrain from taking the “do as I say, not as I do” approach. As a parent, your number one priority is the welfare of your child; why not do well what so many fall short on nowadays? A successful child is perhaps the greatest masterpiece, so invest the effort that is due.

For more information about the Child Abuse Council’s prevention and education programs, you can visit at www.chilabuseqc.org.