10 Tips for Teaching Assertiveness Skills

Teaching children the art of being assertive, confidently asserting your wants and needs without imposing those wants and needs on others, is one of the most common parenting concerns that comes my way.

We all want our kids to be able to speak up, ask for help, and stand up for others.  We all want our kids to break free of the feelings that build walls around them so that they can walk confidently through life, getting their needs met along the way.

For many, being assertive, truly assertive, is a very long-term goal.

Assertiveness is closely tied to self-esteem, and fear of rejection, criticism, being seen as incapable, and the need for belonging often stops older kids from speaking up.  Teens no longer have the market cornered on low self-esteem; it’s a difficult world out there for kids today.  Developing a sense of belonging and knowing that they are valued are crucial to taking those first steps toward becoming assertive.

Below are a few tips to help you help your big kid practice being assertive.

1.    Support Healthy Risks:  Kids have big ideas.  Sometimes a little too big.  But sometimes, those ideas are just about right (even if they do feel a little too big to us).  Whether it’s snowboarding, playing the guitar, writing, or rock climbing, give them a chance to try it out.  Be supportive.  Cheer them on.  And, by all means, resist the urge to run in for the rescue at the first sign of distress.  Kids need to learn that skill acquisition takes time, and that they can work through the necessary steps to get to the other side.

2.    Allow for Mistakes:  We all make mistakes.  Whether it’s in parenting, at the office, or while driving a car, we all make mistakes at times.  Kids are no different, and yet they often feel pressured to avoid mistakes at all costs.  Sometimes to the point of avoiding taking even a very healthy risk.  Avoid criticizing mistakes.  Instead, discuss ways to problem solve for the next time.  Talk about your mistakes.  Share strategies that worked for you when you needed to fix a mistake and move on.  Kids have a tendency to internalize even the smallest comments, particularly kids who are very sensitive.  Try to be aware of your reactions and avoid placing blame.

3.    Resist Comparisons:  It’s a natural tendency of parents to start making comparisons once a second child comes along.  Often these comparisons are fairly benign in nature.  They talk about sleep patterns, eating habits, first words, and other milestones.  But then there are the comparisons that are far less benign:  Avoid comparing skill levels between children.  It’s almost always a set-up for failure, and you never know when your kids are tuning in.  It can be very damaging to the self-esteem of a child.  **It’s also important to avoid making comparisons between your former self (the college athlete, the stellar musician, etc.) and your child.  Other people’s stories are nearly impossible to live up to.

4.    Praise Out Loud:  Share your child’s accomplishments with others within earshot of your child as much as possible.  Make sure to focus on effort, not just finished goals.  Kids need to hear that taking a chance and making an effort is important.  Kids have a tendency to focus on winning or completing projects.  They lose sight of the fact that making an effort is important too.

5.    Role-Play/Scripts:  Practice makes perfect, or better, anyway.  Come up with different scenarios where your child might need to be assertive (such as asking a teacher for help) and do a few role-plays.  If role-playing is too much for your child, write out some scripts together and let him go over them on his own.  Check back in later to see if he needs any help or wants to change anything in the script.  Practicing assertiveness skills with a favorite teacher, coach, or relative first helps kids get used to asserting their needs in a safe environment.

6.    Teach:  Believe it or not, many kids just don’t understand what it means to be assertive.  Provide a few definitions.  Use role-play to demonstrate different communication styles.  Passive:  Avoiding saying what you think, feel, or believe because you are afraid of the possible consequences, do not believe in your own rights, or think the rights of others are more important.  Passive communicators avoid conflict, have trouble saying no, and do not stand up for their rights.  Passive people tend to become resentful.  Aggressive:  Saying what you want, feel, or believe in a way that denies other people’s right to be treated with respect.  Aggressive communicators often use powerful language, speak in a loud voice, and do not care about the feelings of others.  Aggressive people tend to scare others.  Assertive:  Saying what you think, feel, or believe in a straightforward, nonthreatening way.  Assertive communicators make eye contact, speak in a confident voice, and express their needs effectively. 

7.    Assertiveness Rights:  Kids respond well to visual cues.  Together with your child, create an Assertiveness Bill of Rights.  It might include things like:  I have the right to say no, be respected by others, say I don’t know or I disagree, feel and express anger, be proud of my accomplishments, recognize my needs as important, etc.  Be sure to let your child come up with as many of these rights as possible.  This is a great first step toward being assertive.

8.    Model Assertiveness:  The best way to teach your child is to model the behaviors that you want them to internalize.  When grocery shopping, at the mall, or at the movies, be sure to use effective communication skills when seeking help or talking to others.  Point out these moments to your child and discuss what it felt like to assert your needs.

9.    Avoid Shutting them Down:  Kids ask for ten million things a day.  By the end of the day, it’s easy to just start handing out no’s.  If you have a child with low self-esteem or who struggles with asserting himself, an immediate no every time he asks a question feeds into his belief that his ideas aren’t important.  Whenever possible, provide an older kid with a brief explanation and praise him for coming to you and asserting his needs.  Sometimes they just need to know that it’s ok to ask.

10.                Know When to Back Off:  Having a child who struggles to assert himself is not an indicator of your parenting skills.  For some, it takes many years to learnt o really speak up.  Talk about it, work on it, and be there for your child.  But don’t make it your only focus.  Constantly zeroing in on one behavior can make kids anxious, which leads to a new set of behaviors to tackle.  And if your child begs and begs and begs for you to please talk to that teacher for you?  Jump in and help, but bring your child along so that he can watch the interaction.  Process it after.  Teachable moments are everywhere.

How have you helped your child learn to be assertive?

 

 

 

Pin It

Raising Confident Kids (10 Tips for raising self-esteem)

Self-esteem is a collection of beliefs or feelings we have about ourselves.  It fluctuates over time and can be affected by internal thoughts as well as input from others.

Having a healthy self-esteem is like having armor against the world.  It can protect you through difficult times and help you remain focused on what is important to you.  Healthy self-esteem gives you the confidence to make the right choices for you.

Research shows that children with high self-esteem grow up to be more confident adults.  Self-esteem building starts young.

Children with high self-esteem tend to have an easier time handling conflicts and challenges, smile more often, and are generally fairly optimistic.

These children enjoying playing both independently and with other kids, and have high frustration tolerance.

Children with low self-esteem find challenges to be major sources of stress and/or anxiety, struggle with problem solving, and may become passive and/or depressed.

These children tend to avoid trying new things and have very low frustration tolerance.

Self-esteem is all around us.  We need to keep that in mind when raising our kids today.  Just last weekend, Riley and I experienced the following scenario at her soccer game:

Riley approached me with a huge smile on her face as she came over for the mandatory water break.  Just as she started to say something to me, another four year old girl interrupted us:

Girl:  “I’m faster than her, you know”

Me:  “I think you’re both really fast runners!”

Girl:  “No. I’m faster than her AND I can beat her”.

Me:  “We’re not racing today, we’re just having fun playing soccer with friends.  Riley, I am so proud of you, you are having so much fun out there.”

Girl:  “Let’s race and I can beat her”.

This is where Sean sat down and diverted the girl’s attention elsewhere for a moment.  Riley and I made our escape.

That little girl clearly struggles with her own self-esteem.  She wants so badly to “win” so that she can be “better”.  In the process or working this out, she almost damaged my daughter’s sense of self (I jumped in quickly when I saw the look on Riley’s face).  Four year olds aren’t known for their ability to assert themselves, so even a child with a healthy self-esteem might struggle in a similar situation.  We survived that attack relatively unscathed, but it really for me thinking about ways to promote healthy self-esteem in young children.  Below are 10 tips to help you promote your child’s self-esteem:

1.   Praise actions:  You can’t go wrong when you praise your kids, but you might go wrong if you forget to do so.  Young children need feedback.  It’s how they measure their actions and it plays a role in learning from experience.  Provide specific praise about actual actions performed and efforts made in the process.  If praise is only attached to success, kids become focused on “winning”.  Riley loves to practice writing.  When I see her concentrating on her writing and copying letters I say, “Riley, I love how hard you are working on your handwriting.  Those R’s are really looking beautiful.”  I could just say “good job”…but what does that mean?  Be specific.

2.   Identify strengths:  Preschoolers are always watching each other.  On the bright side (or not, depending on the circumstances), they learn new things from each other.  On the not so bright side, they can become self-critical when they see a peer accomplishing something they still struggle to do.  Be sure to point out your child’s strengths regularly and, again, be specific.  Refocus your child on his strengths when he starts to draw comparisons.

3.   Foster a sense of belonging:  Young children don’t necessarily understand how peer pressure works, but they know when they’re being excluded.  Show your children that they are important by listening to and responding to their needs and ideas.  As much as possible, save grown up conversations for later so that you can have family conversations.  Try to address their concerns as they arise, no matter how minor.  As previously mentioned, preschoolers crave input at times.  When they are repeatedly brushed off or made to feel like their concerns aren’t real, it can affect their self-esteem.

4.   Celebrate small steps:  The girl in the above mentioned scenario already seems to subscribe to the theory that winning is everything.  But as we all learned from The Little Engine That Could, it’s the getting there that can really make you feel good.  Choose doable challenges for your kids and celebrate the small successes along the way.  If we only celebrate the end goal, they will evaluate their self worth based on whether or not they cross the finish line.  It’s not about scoring a goal in the soccer game; it’s about getting on the field and chasing the ball while having fun.  The goals will come later.

5.   Encourage talents:  Every child is different.  Their personalities start to emerge within weeks, and they develop their own interests along the way.  Let your child focus on their strengths and talents.  Try not to force certain sports or activities just because they’re readily available or other kids are involved.  Riley likes soccer and tennis, but so far Liam really only likes cars.  Time will tell what he wants to do, but for right now he’s happy with his Gymboree class and his cars.  And that’s just fine.

6.   Correct incorrect beliefs:  Preschoolers love to generalize.  One misspelling and they will declare themselves the worst spellers on Earth!  Redirect inaccurate statements immediately and remind them of their strengths.  It doesn’t have to be a detailed discussion, just a statement of truth.  Just the other day Riley burst into tears and said, “Liam said he’s better at counting and I know that he’s right!”  When she calmed down I replied, “just yesterday I heard you count to thirty.  That’s a big number.  You’re an excellent counter.”

7.   Be affectionate:  There will come a time when they want us to park down the street and wear a hat.  But for right now, they need our affection.  Be generous with hugs, kisses, and I love yous.  They thrive on affection.  It helps them feel loved and secure.

8.   Avoid competition:  Few things make me more upset than very young children who think that winning is the only way to measure success.  It’s not about winning.  It’s about learning, growing, and having fun.  Try to avoid declaring winners (because then there has to be a loser).  When having races or playing games make sure that everyone finishes and is praised for finishing.  Make it about the effort.

9.   Join with your child:  The best way to show interest in your child is to join with him.  Join in when your child engages in his favorite activity.  Ask questions.  Take an interest.  Taking an interest in your child shows him that you value his thoughts.

10.                Foster Independence:  As much as they need us, they also need to work on taking small step towards independence.  When they know they can do things, they feel more confident.  Teach problem solving skills.  Step back and let them work on challenges before jumping in to help.  Help by asking, “how can we do this in a different way?  Let’s come up with some ideas together.”  Getting kids involved in problem solving teaches them how to approach challenging situations in the future.

Building and maintaining healthy self-esteem can be a lifelong process, but the sooner you start, the more confident your child will become.

On a side note:  I recently read about an 18 year old girl, Sarah Cronk, who founded The Sparkle Effect.  The Sparkle Effect is a student-run program that helps high school students across the country create cheerleading squads that include students with disabilities.  Sarah’s mission is to help improve the self-esteem of students with disabilities.  The tagline reads:  When everyone cheers, everyone wins.  She is an amazing young woman.  There is a new TV series on local ABC affiliates, “Everyday Health”, that profiles people who are helping others lead happier lives.  Everyday Health will feature Sarah Cronk on Saturday, September 24.  Check your local listings to tune in and learn more about this incredible young woman.

How do build your child’s self-esteem?

“I don’t like…” (Tips for teaching assertiveness skills)

Riley recently came home from school and made the following statement:  “My friend told me Justin Beaver is the best singer, so I think I really like him best”.  My dislike of all things “Bieber Fever” aside, it hit me that Riley is just now entering the age of peer influence.  Ugh.  I looked at her and said, “Did you tell your friend who your favorite singer is?” to which she replied, “no, because she said Justin Beaver is just really the BEST singer”.  And cue the assertiveness training.  This one was a quick fix.  45 seconds into her first “Justin Beaver” song Riley realized this was not the music for her, but the real issue is teaching her to be just as confident in her choices.  The Beaver is not everyone, after all.

Assertiveness skills can be hard to teach but are an important part of being an effective communicator.  Children who can assert their needs are more likely to have high self-esteem, better communication skills, and are more likely to resist peer pressure. We have to be careful not to push assertiveness training on youngsters though, as this can sometimes have an opposite effect on introverted children.  Some kids actually don’t mind moving on if a toy gets taken…it’s a healthy coping strategy!

Being assertive means confidently expressing your wants or needs without imposing those wants or needs on others. This is not to be confused with being aggressive, however, which means directly imposing your wants or needs on others, sometimes using force.

So how do we gently instill assertiveness skills in our little ones so that they are better able to ask for help, make friends, enjoy play dates, and communicate with peers and adults? It’s a slow process at best, but it’s never too early to start.  Below are some tips to help you help your child learn to assert his needs:

1. Listen Up: We all get distracted sometimes, but taking the time to actually sit and listen to your child (no matter how many times you’ve heard the same story) is the first step toward helping your child feel heard and valued. Ask follow up questions.  Take an interest in all things make-believe and playground related.  When they know that their thoughts are valued, they are more likely to speak up. Show your child that her thoughts matter by using your best active listening skills.

2. Teach liking vs. idolizing: Peer worship starts early.  Some kids are natural performers and seem to command the spotlight, while others are quiet and content on the sidelines.  She who talks the most and the loudest gets the most attention (good and bad), and it’s easy for quiet kids to fall into the trap of peer worship (even if they are the loud kid at home).  Remind your child of his strengths when he starts to become hyper-focused on the strengths of his peer. Sometimes kids need to hear that they are funny, artistic, hard-working, etc. too.

3. Model assertive talk: Around 2 ½, children start playing together and communicating.  This is a great age to jump in and model ways to solve dilemmas over toys and turn taking. Letting them “work it out” will come later; teach first.  Use a calm, but assertive voice when you need to assert your needs (like when your wireless never works). The best way to teach effective communication skills is by using them.

4. Encourage individual thinking: Riley has been putting together “fancy” outfits for quite some time.  She also has an imagination that is unmatched and creates piles of original artwork.  While some preschoolers are focused on drawing things that look “real”, Riley is consumed by elaborate designs and takes pride in the fact that they are almost impossible to replicate.  She’s creative, to say the least.  Praising them for effort and original ideas shows that you are genuinely interested in their thoughts and ideas. Encourage the wacky outfits, different taste in music, and creative/silly ideas and watch their self-esteem flourish!

5. Role play: If your child is able to verbalize feeling bad when another child takes his toy or feeling left out at times, practice ways to handle these scenarios in the future. Some kids become shy when it comes to role-playing, but puppets can really help.  Make up a story about a rabbit taking a bone from a dog and problem-solve ways for the dog to speak up.

6. Teach “I” statements: The keys to speaking assertively are:  Making eye contact, speaking clearly, and focusing on “I” statements. Practice saying, “I don’t like it when you take my toys” or “I feel angry when you don’t share”.  Start these statements when they’re two and you will have a preschooler well versed in the art of sharing his feelings!

7. Teach feelings words: Often kids become aggressive because they don’t have the language to verbalize their needs in an appropriate manner.  Teach them the meaning of sad, mad, grumpy, excited, frustrated, worried, scared, and happy. Point out times when they feel this way and talk about what their face looks like, how their body feels, and what triggered the feeling.  Use that feelings faces chart that I know you have posted in your kitchen!

The ability to be assertive isn’t always in our DNA, it took me years find my assertive voice, but it can be learned.  Start early and give your child the gift of high self-esteem!

How do you help your child with assertiveness skills? 

Feeling Lost in Mommyhood? (Tips for raising your mom-esteem)

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” –Eleanor Roosevelt

 

In my previous post, I addressed the idea that the overwhelming amount of external pressure in the world of Mommyhood can sometimes cause moms to suffer from low “Mom-Esteem” .  Being a parent is hard work and, even on a very good day, there is usually some amount of unpredicted stress that gets internalized throughout the day.

 

There seems to be a new level of mom competition out in the world today.  Moms are obsessively making comparisons, sharing their parenting stats, and commenting on the parenting styles of others.  It can be hard to know who your friends are with so much competition clouding the conversation.

 

And then there are the experts:  The grandparents, the friends and relatives with no kids, the people who seem to have the answers to all of the questions you never asked.

 

Add in the day-to-day stress of sickness, school issues, time management, trying to please others, trying to care for yourself, and, most of all, caring for your children, and you end up with multiple chances per day to see your mom-esteem plummet.  I know because I’ve been there.  Below are some tips to help you keep your mom-esteem high, even on the most tiring days:

 

1. Embrace your choices: You can’t please everyone.  This is not a new concept, but it is one that can be hard to remember.  Up until recently, I was a people pleaser.  I struggled to make decisions in my own best interest because it might upset someone I loved.  This past Fall I made a decision that some people close to me could not understand.  I made it because I had to put my kids first.  I had to do what was right for them.  Some people turned on me.  Some might never talk to me again.  That was when it really hit me:  You can’t please everyone.  As a mom, everything takes a backseat to your kids.  All important decisions come with the question, “what about the kids?”  It took this hard decision for me to realize that pleasing other people for a few hours isn’t reason enough to put my kids through something very stressful.  You can’t please everyone.  Feel good about your choices.  You made them for the right reasons.

2. Avoid comparisons: Sometimes we do it to ourselves; sometimes other people do it to us.  Either way, comparisons rarely end on a positive.  No two kids are the same.  No two moms are the same.  All families are different.  Comparing milestones, preschools, language development, and eating habits is useless.  Try to flip it.  Sharing strategies that helped you might really help another mom with a similar situation.  But if the comparisons just won’t stop despite an effort to focus on the positive, walk away.  You know that you’re doing your best on any given day.  That’s all you can do.

3. Accept compliments: It seems so simple, yet it can be so hard to do.  There’s something about motherhood that conditions us to credit everything good in our lives with a little luck.  You’re working hard every single day.  If someone notices that your kid shares well, has good manners, is respectful, that you handled a situation well, or even that your hair looks great…just say thank you.  You don’t need an excuse for your greatness.  You earned it (do I need to remind you about the endless night feedings, diapers, and bouts of the stomach flu you’ve endured?).  You’ve done the work; accept the praise that comes your way.

4. Choose wisely: Did you know that excessive complaining and negativity among women is actually contagious?  It’s true.  Studies have been done.  Everyone needs to vent and blow off steam, but if you find yourself in a friendship fueled by complaining and negativity, it might be best to take a break.  Try to surround yourself with positive friends who are willing to listen and show support, but who also know how to make you smile.  I have one girlfriend who quite literally lights up every room she enters.  Due to work schedules and kids we don’t get much alone time together, but when we do we spend the first 15 minutes discussing how happy we make each other.  At 36, I’ve finally learned that it’s ok to walk away from negativity.  I don’t have to be there for everyone, especially if other people are not willing to be there for me. Choose wisely.

5. Keep a small moments journal: Parenting is all about the small moments.  Days can be wonderful and days can be overwhelming, but there are always small moments of pure joy at some point during the day.  Capture them with your camera when you can, but use your words to remember the details.  I’m not talking about a lengthy essay, just a couple of sentences.  Like when your two year old finally figures out how to put the Mega Blocks together.  Or when your three year old draws a picture of the whole family.  Maybe it’s just a few funny comments you heard, or the first time your baby says, “I love you, Mommy”.  Look for the small moments of wonder each day and write them down.  Twenty years from now you won’t remember the sleep deprivation or the unfriendly comment that left you feeling defeated, but you will want to remember those little moments of happiness.

6. Challenge yourself: Whether or not you work in addition to being a mommy, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut.  When Sean was on tour I felt like I was just cycling through the same day over and over again.  This blog is as much a challenge for me as it is a creative outlet.  Every time I hit “post” I panic.  Will I get any comments?  Will they be positive or negative?  Does anyone even care?  But I truly enjoy the time spent doing the research, writing the articles, and communicating with other moms.  It can be a challenge to keep up with it, but it’s incredibly rewarding.  After years in the fashion industry, and then time spent at home, my best friend recently took a new job that is completely different than her previous life.  She’s doing really well and always sounds really positive when I ask her about it.  Whether it’s training for a 10K or taking an online class that interests you, try to challenge yourself.  I think you will find that you feel really good about yourself when you are able to step away from the routine, even for just a few hours a week.

7. Avoid personalizing: I have to admit that I struggle with this a lot.  Someone makes a comment intending to upset me, and I let it.  Sometimes even just a look can leave me feeling unsettled.  Here’s the thing:  You never truly know what someone else is going through.  On the days when I remember to just laugh things off or turn the other way, I always feel much better about myself.  At the end of the day, I know that I’m doing a great job as a mom.  If someone doesn’t agree with my parenting style it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong; it just means that we’re different.  Try not to personalize the comments, stares, and feedback.  Make that Eleanor Roosevelt quote your new mantra and release yourself of a huge burden.  You don’t have to take on other people’s negativity just because they’re dishing it out.

8. Find your outlet: I read.  A lot.  I sometimes drive Sean crazy (when he’s home at a decent hour) because I read by way of Kindle on my iPhone.  I hide under the duvet and cruise through chapter after chapter while I should be catching up on sleep.  I can’t help it.  It’s my outlet.  Years ago I was in a book group and loved it.  Sometimes we talked about the books, but often we spent the time catching up and talking about whatever was happening in the world at the time.  If I had the childcare, I would be back in a book group for sure.  I have a friend who has a monthly girls dinner out with a group of old friends.  She really looks forward to those dinners.  Another friend joined a running group and can’t get enough of it.  Find what works for you.  As much as we LOVE our kids, we also need a break once in a while.  Take one.  You deserve it.

9. Prioritize your marriage/relationship: Parenting can easily take up your whole life.  It’s wonderful and amazing and everything you ever wanted, but it’s a full time job.  It’s easy to put your marriage/relationship on the back burner.  Plan date nights.  Even staying home can be a date night.  Turn off all electronics, light a candle, eat at the TABLE (gasp!), and spend quality time talking and connecting.  It’s amazing how much a wonderful night with your significant other can truly help you forget about your stress and feel better about yourself.

10. Exercise: Believe me I know, it’s hard to find the time and the motivation.  But, wow, it feels good when you’re on a roll.  Whether you invest in the treadmill at home or find the YMCA (or gym) with the daycare, allow yourself some time a few days a week to get moving.  It’s good for your body, it will help you sleep, and it will rest your worried mind.  You do so much for everyone else; try to focus on you.

 

High mom-esteem won’t come overnight.  It’s a gradual process of changing your thinking, your responses, and your ability to put yourself first some of the time.  Hopefully some of my strategies will work for you.  If not, maybe this will inspire you to figure what will work for you. Everyday I work a little bit harder to try to turn away from negative input and focus on the small moments of success instead.  I hope you will give yourself permission to do the same.

 

You tell me:  What coping strategies work for you?

 

“Mom-Esteem”: How Do You Rate Yours?

**It’s mom week at Practical Parenting!  Today I’m tackling the way we feel about ourselves as moms, and Friday I will provide tips for improving our “mom-esteem”.

Self-esteem.  Some people spend a lifetime working on it.  The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition, defines self-esteem as:  (n.) respect for, or a favorable impression of, oneself.  I have counseled many children, and their parents, through periods of low self-esteem.  Recognizing your own unique greatness can be a difficult task.

People struggle with self-esteem for a variety of reasons.  Some internalize their feelings and feel compelled to compare themselves to others on a regular basis.  Others feel like they just can’t seem to catch a break and that life is out to get them.  Many have been the targets of bullies, either within their families or in the outside world.  Loss, traumatic experiences, medical conditions, and various disabilities can all cause people to question their self-worth.  There’s generally a trigger (or a series of triggers) that requires some working through in order to raise self-esteem.

Having spent the past four years at home with my kids (with a little work on the side), I’ve seen (and felt) how moms are on a constant ride on the emotional roller coaster.  It’s hard work being a mom.  In fact, I’ve come up my own term for how moms feel about themselves:  “Mom-esteem”. I would define mom-esteem as (n.) respect for, or feeling good about, the choices one makes as a mom.

When you’re raising kids, some days are great, some are ok, and some are downright difficult.  You never know what you’re going to get.  And at the end of the day, moms have to find a way to decompress and cope with whatever was sent their way that day.  On a good day, it’s easy.  On a difficult day, your mom-esteem can really plummet.

Trying to rely on the theory that you can’t control everything and it’s not always your fault is easier said than done.  While this is certainly true, moms are conditioned to feel like they need to be able to handle everything.  Moms are the ones who keep everyone healthy, well fed, and, above all else, happy.  Moms are running things from the control tower.  When something isn’t right, or a day is really difficult, it’s the mom who is left to internalize the resulting emotions.

Then there are the external factors.  The moms who insist on sharing their greatness at the park.  The moms who allegedly never let their kids have any sugar and cook everything from scratch every night using only organic ingredients (my two year old currently lives on bagels, yogurt, and fruit.  Does that make me a failure?).  The moms with impeccably dressed children with clean faces and perfectly coiffed hair.  The moms who found the perfect preschool with the perfect teachers and the perfect play yard.

Not long ago I was at the grocery store with both kids.  They were on foot, “helping” me pick out the groceries.  I’m sure it’s a familiar scenario:  Two items in, one back out.  It takes three times as long to shop this way, but the kids have a little more fun.  If I have to do it, I might as well make it fun.  The check out line is always the hard part.  They compete to see who can put the most items on the belt.  It gets a little hard to control.  And that’s when an elderly shopper shot me a dirty look and commented, “it would be easier if those kids were in a cart, you know”.  My defenses went up.  I bit my tongue (respect your elders) and feigned a smile to avoid a sarcastic reply.  But she got me.  When my defenses are up, my mom-esteem is down.  I tell myself to ignore the people passing judgment, but that can be hard to do.

Another time I picked up Riley at school to have a teacher make a comment about her hearing (while I was signing her out and Liam was running toward the parking lot unattended).  Hearing loss?  Impossible.  It never occurred to me.  I speed dialed Sean and then my sister, and then spent the rest of the day sneaking up on her to check her hearing.  She later passed the hearing screening with flying colors.  Low mom-esteem.  One questionable comment and I immediately assume that I’ve failed my child in some way.

And then there are the endless comparisons.  The race for developmental milestones.  Did you potty train him yet?  Does she get herself dressed in the morning?  Do they sleep through night?  Can she write her name?  Does he know his letters?  These are the conversations I quietly walk away from.  Sometimes even a compliment seems like an accusation, “wow.  He really talks in complete sentences at a young age”.  The subtext is there.  This conversation won’t end until the other mom is back on top.  It can really cause the mom-esteem to take a hit.

Forget about a public temper tantrum.  It can take a week to come back from one of those.  A few disapproving stares and the mom-esteem is almost non-existent.  I’ve learned to grin and move on, but I’ve had some experiences where I ended up emotionally exhausted after coping with the tantrum, the exhausted child, and the input from the passersby.  It’s hard to tune it out every time.

Do I need to mention the constant feedback and unsolicited advice from older (who might think they are wiser) family members?  They always seem to remember having done it just right.  Did they really?  Was their mom-esteem always a perfect ten?  It’s doubtful.

Great days are amazing.  You end the day feeling very connected to your children. You had fun.  They had fun.  Everyone ate something green and lots of fruit.  The stars were aligned.  Your mom-esteem is at an all-time high.

But the bad days are horrible.  The kids are tired, cranky, sick, and picking on each other every time you attempt to make a meal or clean a dish left in the sink.  The house is a mess.  The laundry still isn’t done.  You end the day in a state of complete emotional exhaustion.  You question whether or not you raised your voice just a little, and what impact that had on your child.  You wonder if that trip to the germy indoor play space caused the colds.  You might even start to envy someone who seems to have an “easier” time with this motherhood thing.  Your mom-esteem ceases to exist.  So you break out the chocolate and ice cream, because what else can you do?

The truth is that we all have hard days.  I’ve been told that I make it look easy.  More than once.  It’s not always easy.  Some people spend years working on their self-esteem, but from the minute your first child is born, you will likely spend the rest of your life working on your mom-esteem.

And you know those moms with the perfect kids who only eat organic everything?  Let me let you in on a little secret:  They struggle with their mom-esteem too.  Why else would they feel compelled to share their stats with unsuspecting strangers at the park instead of just enjoying their kids?  They strive to feel good too.

What causes shifts in your mom-esteem?  How do you cope with difficult days?

**Please remember to check back Friday for “Tips on Raising your Mom-Esteem”, and look for my weekly article at Mommy Moment on Thursday, where I will be talking about mom stress.

In Defense of Praise (Tips for increasing your child’s self-esteem)

There’s a lot of chatter out there about the potential pitfalls of praising our children “too much”. Some are seeking specifics. “When and how often should I praise my child?” Others are weighing in on what they consider to be “the best” parenting style. The truth is, we all have our own style when it comes to parenting. Children are individuals. They have different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, etc. One of the most amazing things about being a parent is that we get to watch these seemingly helpless little beings grow into wonderful children with great ideas and non-stop energy to burn. Sure, we can shame them into following a specific set of standards and, most of the time, they will fall in line like good little soldiers. Why we would we want to? Self-esteem is what helps kids have the confidence to try new things, make new social connections, and take healthy risks. Feeling a sense of belonging enables kids to reach out to other kids in their age group at the park. Feeling capable causes them to try that puzzle independently or zoom down that giant tunnel slide at a new park. Everyday we have a chance to show our kids that we think their ideas are worthwhile just by listening and making eye contact. By showing genuine interest and praising their efforts (not just success) we are helping to build resiliency in our children. There will come a time when they won’t be successful and we won’t be there to pick them up and reset them. But if we praise them and help build their self-confidence along the way, we are leading them down the path toward a lifetime of self-confidence. Children who have high self-esteem aren’t as negatively affected by small “failures” as children who have low self-esteem. They are more resilient and better able to pick themselves up and try again. Riley loves to make new friends at the park. She’s just reached the stage where she eyes another girl and whispers that she would like to play with her. Just yesterday she saw a group of older girls playing and whispered that she wanted to meet them. We did a quick recap of how to make an introduction: “Hi, my name is Riley. What is your name?” and off she went. As it turned out, this particular gaggle of six year old girls weren’t really interested in playing with a four year old. Not all that surprising. Riley looked back at me, defeated. I gave her a big smile and said, “Riley, you did a great job introducing yourself! I’m so proud of you. Let’s see if anyone else might want to play.” Her smile returned and we headed for the swings. I suppose I could have told her to suck it up (or something even less friendly, I overhear some real winning statements at times), but what good would that do? She made a great effort, and that seemed worthy of praise. You know your children better than anyone, so your instinct will tell you when to jump in and praise and when to step back and let them work things out independently. But I think that, as parents, we can all help our children develop a positive self-concept if we are willing to shower them with praise and love regularly. Below are some tips to help you give your child the gift of high self-esteem:

1. Give love: This sounds like a simple one, but sometimes saying, “I love you” is something that we take for granted. Why not tell them how you feel? What’s the downside? I didn’t grow up in an “I love you” kind of family (that’s not to say that love wasn’t shown, it just wasn’t verbalized), but I’m enjoying raising one. I tell them every chance I get. Teaching your kids that you love them no matter what they do is a very important lesson. Riley was frustrated with Liam the other night. She’s actually fairly patient with him, but sometimes he just won’t take no for an answer. In grabbing a toy back from him she accidentally knocked him down and he bumped his head. I redirected her and took him to my room to calm down. She later started to tear up and said, “I’m worried you’re mad at me”. I took the opportunity to sit her on my lap and say, “Riley, Mommy always loves you, no matter what choices you make. But you do have to follow the rules.” Satisfied, she dried her tears and walked away. It’s hard being little. Sometimes they need reminders that they are loved, no matter the circumstances.
2. Praise often: Everybody loves to be encouraged. My day can completely turn around just by getting an encouraging text from my husband! When you praise a good effort made by your child you show him/her that you are proud. This increases your child’s self-esteem, thereby enabling him/her to keep trying. Try to be specific with your praise. Saying “good job” is ambiguous. Saying, “you did a great job sharing your toys with your friend” shows that you are paying attention and encourages your child to repeat that positive behavior.
3. Be a good listener: We’re all busy these days. Whether it’s work, lots of kids, volunteering, etc. life is just busy. Sometimes that means not taking the time to really listen. Since starting this blog and writing for others I am finding that I have to shut off my computer and put my phone out of reach so that I can really listen to my kids. When you stop what you’re doing to make eye contact and really listen to your child, you show him/her that you value what he/she has to say. When you use active listening by asking follow up questions, you teach your child how to communicate. And when they come to you feeling happy, sad, frustrated, etc. use the opportunity to label their feelings and help them learn to identify their own emotions. Listening to your child helps your child feel valued and teaches him/her how to listen to others.
4. Encourage (safe) risk-taking: The fact is that to be successful, you have to be willing to take a risk. Taking risks, of course, lends itself to the possibility of failure. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Encourage your child to take a ride down that slide he’s been eyeing at the park, ride the bike, make a friend at the park, try a new food, etc. Let them know that you think they can do it and will be there to cheer them on. He might fall off the bike a few times, but you can always be there to help him feel better and praise his efforts. The lesson here is that just giving it a try is the first step toward success. Riley was playing her guitar the other day when she threw it down and said, “I can’t do it like daddy!” We had a chat about how daddy has spent his whole life practicing his bass, and that he does it for a job. But when he started, it was just for fun. And when he realized that he could make a career out of it, he had to practice a lot along the way. He still does.
5. Teach rules: Knowing that rules exist increases the feeling of stability for your child. Despite their tendency to test limits and break rules often, they actually take comfort in knowing that you will follow through on that time out (or other consequence). Have a few established rules in your house and stick to them.
6. Focus on strengths: Try to notice the individual strengths in each of your children, and avoid comparison. Children develop at their own pace; it’s not a race. Telling one child that his brother is capable of something so he should be too only serves to make that child feel like a failure. Avoiding labels (“athlete”, “musician”, etc.) is also a good strategy. Chances are that your child will go through stages; they don’t have to be pigeon holed into athletics just because they can hit a ball. Let them explore various interests and choose their own path. Riley recently learned to say things like “I’m the winner” or “I’m the best” from a particularly competitive friend. We try to avoid this in our house. We try to praise them for their individual strengths and play for fun. We are currently playing a lot of games to work on playing for fun, not for winning. As someone who spent many years playing to win, I can promise you that it’s not actually all that much fun. In fact, it’s kind of stressful.
7. Arrange special time: I know I talk about this a lot. I have a husband who keeps crazy work hours, and sometimes travels a lot, so it’s hard for me to carve out individual time for each kid. I’m always working on it. Giving your child your undivided attention helps him/her know that you think he/she is important. It’s also a great way to connect and really listen. Riley and I went for a long walk and to the park yesterday while Liam and daddy napped. We talked about everything and had 1 ½ hours of uninterrupted playtime. We both returned happy and refreshed. Special time is important for both of you.
8. Work on your own self-esteem: I struggled with low self-esteem from my childhood clear on through college. As a result, I was sometimes afraid to initiate friendships and focused instead on trying to be the best at everything. It took a lot of work to improve my self-esteem, and it’s a pattern I most certainly don’t want my kids to repeat. We are always modeling behavior for our children. If your child sees you beating yourself up over small things, they are likely to repeat that. If all they see is competition and trying to win at all costs, they will probably head down that path. Try to keep your own feelings in check and show them that you feel good about your own efforts in various areas of your life.

High self-esteem is the greatest gift you can give your child. Starting them off on the road to self-confidence can help them live a lifetime of happiness and success. With the risk of labeling myself an “over-praiser”, I say take the time to cheer your kids on, love them out loud, and really listen to them. They will thank you later.

What do you think? Are we giving our children “too much praise?”