Awhile back there arose out of the West a new movement, using a term that everybody thought they were familiar with, but which took on new momentum and significance. It was the “Self-Esteem” arena and a lot of confusion came with it. Many thought it meant always complimenting a child, never saying the child was wrong, perhaps even allowing a child to do whatever s/he wanted in order not to feel stifled or limited. These are all misconceptions. What is true, however, is that the child with strong self-esteem is the child who is empowered. And, furthermore, the ways in which adults can empower the children in their lives is basically the same for every child, with or without a disability.
So, what are the ways in which to do this?
1. Establish clear guidelines. It is a source of strength and encouragement to know what is expected of you, what is permitted and not permitted. Children become quite confused and unsure when rules and expectations are changed frequently.
2. State what you want in very clear terms: Instead of, “clean up your room,” say “put away your blocks” or “it’s time to put the books back on the shelf.” Then the child knows exactly what to do and can gain a feeling of accomplishment in two ways: completing the task and pleasing the adult. Also, try to always remember to use “please” and “thank you,” just as you prefer when someone asks you to do something.
3. Always look for and comment on the positive in a situation. If, for instance, the child has put away only four of the 20 blocks that are out, instead of saying “what’s wrong with you, you only put away four of the blocks,” say “Well, you did a good job with those blocks and I bet you can do just as good a job with the rest. I can’t wait to see that so I can tell you how proud I am.” You provide an incentive and instill the belief that s/he can do a great job.
4. When a child is learning something new or trying to achieve a new skill, comment positively for every step along the way, regardless of how small it may be. As it is when a child is being toilet trained and you don’t, for instance, wait until the child does what needs to be done, wipes himself, flushes, and then washes and dries his hands before you say “hooray,” but, instead acknowledge every slight move toward that goal—becoming aware of the situation, then alerting the adult, then waiting to undo his clothes and getting on the potty, etc.—so it should be with growth in other areas as well.
5. Whenever possible, keep available mementoes of all accomplishments no matter how insignificant they may seem to you as the adult. Anything that the child did that s/he felt pleased about or proud of. You can put pictures or papers on the wall or have everything stored in a box. That way, anytime a child is feeling she can’t accomplish something, she has proof that she felt that way before, but was able to overcome and advance. It’s also good to have these things around just as a constant reminder that change and growth are possible.
6. Refrain from comparing your child to other children. The adult should keep in mind and help the child to understand that each of us is an individual with his own set of abilities and difficulties. Each individual has strengths and weaknesses. Comparisons also imply to the child that you prefer someone else to him—and that feels awful!
7. Try to avoid criticism. Instead, point out what was done well. If more needs to be done to complete a task, ask if she’d like some help and how you can help her. Allowing the child to make the decision is empowering. It, literally, gives her power and it shows you respect her judgment and decision.
8. As early as possible, begin to allow children to make their own choices—the younger the child, the narrower the possibilities. For instance, “Do you want Cheerios or Corn Flakes,” then “Hot cereal or cold cereal?” Finally, “What do you want for breakfast?”
9. If a rule needs to be set that isn’t something that’s an absolute (as waiting for an adult to cross the street, for example) consult with the child. “I know you like to have cookies, but too many cookies are not good for you. Let’s decide together how many cookies are okay and when you can have them.” The child feels important to be consulted, and, when one has had a role in making the decision, he is more likely to stick to it and the adult can say, “Remember, you helped decide this, now I expect you to respect it.”
10. Treasure their treasures. These can be either something they made or something they found, or something they have. Very often what’s important to a child can seem valueless to an adult. But by understanding and honoring what’s important to them, the child feels respected and accepted.
11. Always be encouraging. Instead of saying, “No, you can’t do that,” if possible, try to figure out a way they can do it. Or, if it’s really something beyond their ability, say, “This is what needs to be done; how do you think you (or we) could do that?” If the child himself realizes that it’s something that is beyond his capabilities right now or perhaps ever, it is easier to accept than being told, “You can’t do that”. And, on the other hand, there is a possibility that with the two of you considering the “hows,” you will both realize that it is something that can be achieved.
12. Finally, understand and validate their feelings. It’s possible that the greatest gift anyone can receive is to be understood. To tell someone, “It’s silly to feel bad”; or “You shouldn’t be angry”; or “You’re making too big a deal out of it,” is to diminish and undermine their essence of themselves. Understand, share, let them express and then they can move on—feeling empowered and strong.
Nancy Silberman Zwiebach psych.babe_verizon.net