All you want to do is help them any way you can, protect them from the world, and make them feel good.
So you make a point of praising them as often as you can, spend late nights helping them with school projects, and check their school bag every day to make sure they have everything they need.
You might mean well, but sometimes things you do that are motivated by love and wanting to make life easier for your child can actually damage their self-esteem, experts say.
A child’s self-esteem is shaped by their relationship with their parents or other authority figures in their life, says Chanelle Visser, a clinical psychologist from Krugersdorp.
“Self-image is the perception your child develops about themselves based on their physical traits, personality and characteristics,” she explains. “It’s largely based on other people’s opinions and personal experiences that the child internalises. It also has to do with how a child perceives their own value and what they believe they can achieve.”
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Parents need to support and encourage their children and provide guidance, she adds. But they also need to let them develop and discover their own skills, solve their own problems and take responsibility for themselves – and this is where parents sometimes unintentionally do more harm than good.
Here are seven common mistakes to watch out for.
1. YOU’RE OVERPROTECTIVE
When parents are overprotective, it can make children doubt their own abilities, says Eloise Spengler, an educational psychologist from Krugersdorp. If you tend to stop your child before they’ve even tried something, they might feel they can’t do it.
Rather give your child the space to tackle a challenge by themselves or master a new task.
“Sometimes parents are tempted to do everything for their children. Of course, the tasks they perform should be age-appropriate but children of all ages experience a feeling of satisfaction and pride when they’ve mastered a task. It also teaches perseverance,” she explains.
She suggests not saying things like, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea that you put the biscuits in the oven – you’ll burn yourself.” Instead, say something like, “Remember to use the oven gloves when you put the biscuits in the oven so you don’t burn yourself.”
2. YOU’RE ALWAYS COMING TO THEIR RESCUE
Some parents are too quick to intervene when things go wrong, Spengler says.
“If you’re too quick to help or don’t give your child the chance to correct their mistakes, what you’re communicating is, ‘You can’t do it yourself.’ Sometimes, they may interpret it as, ‘I only love you when you do things right’.”
Give your child the chance to correct their mistake so they gain confidence in their abilities and problem-solving skills.
Also, be aware of situations where you’re tempted to step in because you know it’ll be easier to just get things done yourself. So don’t say, “You haven’t fed the dog again. Leave it, I’ll do it myself.” Rather say, “Did you forget something? I see poor Rufus looks like he’s starving.”
3. YOU LIMIT YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONS
The way children experience their emotions has an impact on their self-image, Visser says. “No parent likes seeing their child upset but you need to create an environment in which it’s okay to have those emotions,” she says.
“If we don’t do that, we’re raising children who believe it’s wrong to have overwhelming emotions such as sadness or anger. As a result, they think there’s something wrong with them when they feel that way.”
Rather encourage your child to try to put their emotions into words and to understand why they’re feeling it.
Don’t say, “You have no reason to be angry.” Or, “There’s nothing to cry about, just stop crying!”
Rather say, “I can see you’re angry. Take a breath, then we’ll talk about it later.” When you do talk about it later, say, “How could you have handled the situation better? What will you do if it happens again?” Or, “Breathe deeply, then tell me why you’re feeling angry.”
4. YOU EXPECT PERFECTION
Be careful of expressing disappointment in your child when their academic or other performance fails to live up to your expectations.
“These expectations communicate to your child that their best isn’t good enough – and by extension they’re not good enough,” Visser says.
“Parents are often critical of their child’s achievements and that leads to more pressure. It can make children anxious, withdrawn or lead to anger and rebellious behaviour,” she says.
“Constant criticism can cause long-term damage. Be aware of your choice of words and tone when giving your child feedback – it’s important.”
Of course you should encourage your child to do their best but rather acknowledge the hard work than fixate on results that could’ve been better.
And focus on your child’s expectations rather than your own. This way, you’re encouraging them to pursue their dreams rather than putting more pressure on them.
Don’t say, “If you work harder, you’ll do better.” Or, “Maybe you’ll do better next time.”
Rather say, “What would you like to achieve?”
5. YOU CONFUSE THE PERSON WITH THE BEHAVIOUR
Be very careful of making your child think they’re a disappointment when what they need to understand is that some types of behaviour aren’t acceptable.
“They need to understand it’s their behaviour that was disappointing,” Spengler says. So when you discipline them, it’s important to distinguish between your child as a person and their behaviour.
“We’re quick to label children with words like ‘naughty’, ‘difficult’ or ‘grumpy’. That shapes your child’s identity and makes it difficult for them to distinguish between their actions and their humanity. The result is that when they do something wrong, they believe they’re a failure and can’t see their mistake as an isolated incident,” she explains.
When disciplining your child, avoid negative sentences that start with “you are”, Visser says. “Also avoid generalisations like ‘always’ or ‘never’.”
Don’t say, “Why are you always so naughty?” Or, “You’re always grumpy!”
Rather say, “Don’t do this because . . .” Or, “I see you’re feeling angry today.”
6. YOU CREATE A VICTIM MENTALITY
If you make your child think the world is against them and that life is unfair, they might feel their actions have no value, Visser says.
“It makes your child feel despondent and they may develop a grudge,” she adds.
Failure and obstacles are part of life and experiencing these is part of the growth process.
Don’t say, “We’re not as wealthy as Luke’s parents – they can buy new sneakers for him every month, but we can’t.”
Rather say, “We can’t afford a new pair of sneakers right now.”
7. YOU COMPARE YOUR CHILD TO OTHERS
Parents might think they’re motivating their kids by comparing them to others, Visser says, but it mostly has the opposite effect.
“Though it’s normal for children to compare themselves to their peers in order to establish where their skills are at, parents shouldn’t. It can make the child think they’re not good enough. Focus on your child’s unique attributes,” Spengler says.
Don’t say, “Your sister always did all her homework without being reminded.” Or, “Why aren’t your marks as good as John’s?”
Rather say, “I think you’re old enough to take responsibility for your homework.” Or, “Are you satisfied with your marks? What do you think went wrong?
Children are spending more and more time online these days and might start linking their self-worth to how many “likes” they get on social media, cautions Marita Rademeyer, a child psychologist from Pretoria.
The pandemic has made things difficult, but don’t let online be the only place you let your child talk to friends or play games and don’t let them go on social media too often.
Set an example by limiting your own screen time, Rademeyer says. Make time to exercise together as a family. Create opportunities for your children to connect with their friends so they can experience healthy social interaction and discover and express themselves in that space.