Self-esteem is an overall evaluation of one’s self-worth. Some people have negative or low self-esteem wherein they see themselves as inferior to others and feel rejected and lonely. Children with special needs sometimes view themselves in a similar way.
Causes and signs of low self-esteem
At an early age, children begin to compare themselves to their peers in areas such as academics, the ability to make friends and athletic abilities. Such comparisons often lead to these children perceiving themselves to be lacking in every area of their lives – ‘Everything is harder for me.’ The outcome of repeated mistakes could be a child who feels hopeless and discouraged because their efforts do not produce the desired results. Moreover, when a child is diagnosed, there’s often a team of therapists and specialists working together with the child. These frequent visits may give them the feeling that there is something wrong with them or that they need ‘fixing’.
Children with low self-esteem often talk negatively about themselves. They could say things like ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I can’t do anything right’, ‘I don’t want to bother trying because I will get it wrong anyway’. Such a pessimistic and negative attitude can be seen along with a dip in their mood or with withdrawal. They may develop a fear of making a mistake and give up easily on any task or want others to do it for them.
Building a child’s self-esteem
The right approach to building a child’s self-esteem could make a monumental difference in that child’s life and their perception of self-worth. Differences and uniqueness should be celebrated instead of looked down upon. It helps to start doing this at an early age so that the child has a deeper understanding of this as they grow older. Not all children end up doing well in academics. Exploring other strengths of the child such as music, art, sports, etc and providing opportunities to enhance these skills acts as a good self-esteem boost. Even highlighting positive parts of their nature like kindness, honesty, etc would help. Everyone, child or adult, struggles when they learn something new. It’s important to remind the child that they may not be having difficulty because of their slower rate of learning but because the matter that is being taught itself is difficult. Helping the child find new strategies to learn something would also be helpful like by breaking down the task into smaller parts or having visual cues. In order to not let the child give up, it is essential to emphasize on and praise their efforts and not just their successes.
A child’s self-esteem shoots up when they do something well, therefore, focusing on the little things they can do can help maintain this level of self-esteem. There are many things a lot of us cannot do; how we react to that depends on the standards that we are trying to reach. It is the same with children with special needs. Being patient with the child who is making errors and reminding them that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses could help normalize making a mistake. One needs to show empathy about the child’s learning needs and about their frustration while learning. Having good problem-solving skills have been linked to having higher self-esteem. Providing children with the solution to all their difficulties could be a hindrance to gaining problem-solving skills. Try to get the child to brainstorm and come up with solutions to their difficulties instead of giving them a ready-made one.
Providing opportunities for the child to assist someone else in their areas of strength can make them more confident and make them focus more on these areas. For instance, if the child is good at math, get them to help a younger child or their peers with a problem. It is important to have realistic expectations with choosing a task for the child to take on. Make sure that the activity is developmentally appropriate. Having said this, encouraging making their own decisions in daily life fosters independence and high self-esteem. Offer choices, for instance, ask them which T-shirt they prefer to wear to school. Even if the child is non-verbal, they can point out to the one they want to wear or which biscuit he would like to eat.
A child’s identity develops through their experiences. It is important that the child grows up with a positive self-identity rather than a negative label like ‘autistic’ or ‘learning disabled’. It is important to educate those that surround the child on a regular basis about what can help the child and what will harm the child in their interactions. Making friendships and forming relationships can increase a sense of belonging to a great extent. Teaching the child social scripts that they can use while at school or at the playground with other children could begin the process of making a friend. One can even encourage these friendships by calling over some friends and classmates home for a playdate.
Sometimes there is so much fear attached to putting children in a potentially uncomfortable situation like the one mentioned above. However, it is important to keep in mind that taking risks and managing unpredictable situations is a part of human development. Taking some reasonable and calculated risks will only help children to develop in a healthy manner. Focusing on and appreciating the child’s development in a holistic way, would also make the child appreciate themselves for having unique strengths.