Remodeling a Child’s Self-Image

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Every person, young or old, has a self-image – and that’s a good thing. A person’s self-image provides a way of identifying who he or she is in the world. Parents often worry about a child having a negative self-image and low self-esteem and want to reshape negative perceptions into positive ones.

The three components of self-image are how we see ourselves, how others see us and how we think others see us. Each component builds on another over the course of life experiences and begins to develop as early as infancy. A baby learns to crawl, sparking a can-do attitude and sense of ability. On the other hand, a baby with a mother who is inattentive or neglectful to his needs learns that he can cry all he wants, but he’s not as important as whatever has his mother’s attention.

Teens often struggle with how others see them. Many who suffer from eating disorders describe themselves as fat, with their identity based on unrealistic perceptions of beauty flaunted in media outlets.

Parents often wonder if their child has low self-esteem, is simply aware of personal shortcomings or is experiencing teenage moodiness. Signs that indicate a negative self-image include social withdrawal, anxiety and emotional turmoil, a decline in social skills and self-confidence, and depression or bouts of sadness. Other typical signs of a negative self-image are eating disorders; an inability to accept compliments or to be fair to themselves; accentuating the negative; having exaggerated concerns about what others think; worrying that they’ve treated others badly; and a reluctance to tackle challenges and trust personal opinions.

So how does a parent help to improve their child’s self-image? A child’s self-image is boosted most by having a firm, caring relationship with an adult who has a positive self-image. Ideally, that adult is a mother or father, but grandparents, coaches, relatives or another influential adult is also acceptable. This means that moms and dads need to evaluate their own self-image first. Like begets like. An adult with a weak self-esteem is going to have a hard time convincing their child to have a positive one.

Today’s youths are extremely intuitive and recognize hypocrisy, honesty and even unspoken stressors. If parents have poor self-esteem and need help to improve their self-image, it’s wise to set an example by seeking professional help.

Once a positive mentor has been selected, he or she can identify talents and potential talents in the child, and then foster growth in these areas. When children master a skill or develop a talent, feelings of self-worth are planted. Parents can cheer on children as they explore and succeed.

When failures happen, turn them into lessons. Help children see a loss as a challenge and opportunity. Dissect the experience, focus on positives and then pinpoint opportunities for growth.

For example, if your son receives a bad mark on his English exam, look it over with him, locate his strongest and weakest areas and develop tactics to better understand missed concepts. Or, if your daughter’s team loses a soccer game, focus on the excellent pass she made and the efforts of her teammates, instead of the scoreboard.

Teaching communication and problem-solving skills will help children understand how to transform future upsets into successes. Discovering alternative solutions allows children to creatively remedy failures or implement improved plans for next time. Communication skills also allow children to discuss struggles and feelings in a healthy way, and even check with peers to confirm perceived self-images. A child with communication skills who thinks peers have identified him as unkind, can ask, “Do you think I am mean because I …?”

If you know your child has a negative self-image but aren’t sure what the root of the problem is, a psychiatrist or psychologist can help. Depression, anxiety, abuse or something separate may be an underlying cause of a negative self-image. An evaluation may help to identify the root cause so that the true issues – not just the symptoms – are treated.

Tia Konzer is a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Presbyterian Psychiatric Associates.