Sunday, July 19, 2015

Helping Children to Become Caring, Confident and Secure

Art by F.M.F, 10 years old

By Daphna Ram, Ph.D.* (with Sarah Whipple, Ph.D.)

Part of healthy development involves a strong emotional foundation. Two critical components of social and emotional development are self-concept and self-esteem. Self-concept refers to what an individual believes about him or herself. Self-esteem refers to how positively an individual views and feels about him or herself. Both concepts refer to understanding yourself and knowing who you are.

Children’s perception of others also plays a role in his or her self-esteem and self-concept. Children engage in social comparison, where they examine their own abilities and accomplishments relative to those of their peers. Knowing your place in the world— seeing yourself as separate from others and unique— is crucial in helping you understand how to relate to others.

Parents may play an important role in helping children develop self-esteem and explore their self-concept. By simply asking their children a question every day, parents may help their children think critically about their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. For example, asking a child about his or her strengths (“what is easy for you but hard for others?”) gives the child an opportunity to understand what he/she is good at and feel good about him/herself. This also situates the child in a social context and allows for social comparison; the child is given an opportunity to understand her own strengths relative to others, and also to understand that people have different strengths and attributes.

Similarly, asking specifically about others also allows for social comparison. For example, asking children “Who is happy?", or "Of your teachers who do you think cares the most about students?” enables them to think about characteristics that they value (or don’t) in others and reflect on whether they are similar to others on these charateristics. Again, this helps children understand how they relate to others and helps them highlight their own attributes. It is important to note that as children get older, their self-esteem may decrease as they realize they may not be as good as others at all things. However talking openly with children about their abilities relative to others, and  asking the child about his or her weaknesses (“what do you wish you were better at?”) allows the child to evaluate his or her limitations. This also provides the parent an opportunity to reinforce to the child that not everything comes naturally to everybody, and that sometimes we must work in order to achieve our goals.

The notion of working hard is also especially important with regard to self-esteem, as children who feel that their performance on a given task can be improved through practice have been found to have more positive thoughts about themselves than children who feel that their performance outcomes are fixed.  Furthermore, children who believe in the importance of practice tend to be more resilient, even in the face of failure.  

Supporting children’s self-esteem and self-concept also promotes the development of specific emotions that are critical in helping the child have positive interactions with others. Self-conscious emotions, such as guilt, shame, and pride, arise from understanding that you are different from others, and that others may have different expectations and perspectives. This allows the child to consider other points of view, which helps promote empathy and sensitivity. Research has found that children with more well-developed understanding of emotions and perspectives tend to have better social relationships. Therefore helping children understand who they are helps them understand who others are, and helps them become caring, confident, and secure individuals.

*Daphna Ram, Ph.D Psychology Cornell, utilizes her Developmental Psychology expertise on Povi.

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