Healthy relationships are built on a strong foundation of being adaptive to other people, being flexible when things are challenging and, essentially, having the foundation of resilience from a young age. Most of the time, resilience goes hand-in-hand with healthy self-esteem and confidence.
As a child behaviour expert, one of the many skills Stephanie Wicker from Simply Kids often helps families with is building a child’s self-esteem. In this article, we explore what it means for a child to have a “healthy self-esteem” and the small steps parents can take to support this as their little one’s emotional coach.
How does a child’s self-esteem impact their behaviour during the early years?
Self-esteem is an understanding of who we are as individuals and what our core values are as a person. A person with healthy self-esteem is flexible and pro-adaptive, and children with healthy self-esteem are less likely to become frustrated and flustered.
If you imagine a person as a tree, self-esteem would be its roots. Wind may push the tree back and forth, but the tree stands firm because its roots are deep.
Similarly, self-esteem is the core values that keep the individual standing firmly, while the environment or other people can be compared to the wind that is pushing it back and forth.
Because the tree and its branches are able to adapt to the wind, they’re able to bend and be flexible, making them stronger than ever. This is a wonderful example of how having intrinsic core values and having a clear sense of self-identity can be empowering, allowing us to be flexible because we don’t feel the fear of losing who we are.
Values can be taught as early as the toddler years. However, in order to them to take effect, they need to come intrinsically. This means that teaching self-regulation is much more than just modelling how to regulate your big emotions. While modelling is very effective, there is more that we can do to evoke the skills from an early stage.
“Who am I?” – “What is my role?” – “What is my significance?”
These are all innate questions which can start to kick in when children are 4 years old. Hence, while we can begin modelling resilience and problem-solving, and begin teaching through exposure from very early ages, it’s important to understand that when your child is somewhere around this age, challenging behaviours could arise due to this question being in their mind.
This initial identity crisis is a completely natural form of brain development and should not be feared or avoided. Instead, we’re going to focus on helping your child work through this identity crisis and find their intrinsic sense of self through daily connections, opportunities to empower and encouraging their growth mindset.
A gentle way to expose children to simple problem-solving is by reframing our language and communication with them.
From the time a child is born, the responsibility to keep them safe and keep them healthy is very high on our to-do list (to say the least). But interestingly, one of the things that can come between a child and healthy self-esteem is when we adults are constantly providing immediate solutions and blocking opportunities for them to solve their own small problems.
As the brain develops, children begin to crave independent thinking. However, parents can often be accustomed to having sole accountability of making decisions and anticipating challenges ahead of time for their child. This could create a pattern of foreseeing a problem and filling in the need through placing a demand (go put your shoes on, eat all your broccoli, etc.) or simply doing it for their child.
As a child ages and their brain becomes more independent, parents find that their toddlers will start to resist that “filling in the gap” for them. You might find that one day your toddler listens beautifully and does exactly what you asked, and then another day (or even a couple minutes later) your toddler will refuse to listen, avoid you or even have a tantrum over something very small…!
While this might not make much sense to us in the heat of the moment, but soon you might look back and start to notice a time in your toddler’s development when they started to resist your instructions and avoid your demands and questions. This is simply due to natural development and their brain beginning to crave independence.
I hear from families every week asking, “How can I help my child through their tantrums and defiance?”
The best way to help children decrease those defiant behaviours is to understand that counter coercion is a natural part of brain development.
As we create our own parenting or teaching habits, our little ones are beginning to learn their own behavioural habits. So, while tantrums might come and go during the toddler years, they can often resurface around 4 years old as your child develops a healthy, intrinsic sense of self and flexibility that comes with self-esteem.
Once your child’s brain is resistant, defiant, aggressive and disobedient, their brain has now been triggered in the midbrain, or the amygdala. This is an emotional area of the brain often referred to as the downstairs brain. Reasoning, problem-solving and thoughtfulness all take place and the prefrontal lobe.
Boosting self-esteem takes place in the prefrontal lobe. Which is why, if we want to support a child during those early years of tantrums and defiance, the best way is to activate the frontal area of the brain by allowing ample opportunity for your child to solve their own small problems.
Encouraging your child’s self-esteem during the early stages of their life has a neurological impact on their overall behaviour. So, take a big step back and let your little one’s logical brain get to work.
How do you support your kid’s self-esteem and confidence?
Stephanie Wicker is an educator and founder of Simply Kids in Sydney, with over fifteen years of experience working across various facets of early childhood behaviour. She provides resources and evidence-based programs to empower parents to guide their children through life’s challenges calmly and mindfully.