My colleague Mike Church remembers, “One day when one of my daughters was eight years old, I told her she was cute, sweet, and smart. She quickly retorted, ‘You have to say that Daddy because you’re my Dad.’ Suddenly, I realized she was forming her own opinions of herself, based on impressions from people in her social world. Clearly, she wanted to receive approval and recognition from more than her parental figures. She was beginning to evaluate herself based on interaction and feedback from a much larger field of influence.”
Most psychologists agree that the seeds of self-esteem are planted in childhood through early social interactions with many people, but especially with parents. This is not to say that parents should attribute their kids’ shortcomings and failures as entirely the result of how they raised the kids. After all, children are free to make choices as they grow. Thus, whereas it’s true that parents can influence their children’s development into adulthood, we don’t want to say that parents completely determine how their kids turn out.
Child psychologists have studied the influence on children of various parental childrearing styles. Here’s a summary of some of those styles. Do you see yourself in them, as either a child or a parent? That recognition can often be helpful in assessing any coping problems you may have. In other words, when you assess factors that can help you or hinder you in coping with your stressors, it can be helpful to look at yourself when you were a child, and how you may be now as a parent.
Trust and Autonomy. When parents provide a consistently loving and secure environment, they help their children develop feelings of trust in others, and confidence to be autonomous and explore their environment. Parents who are neglectful or abusive generate distrust in kids, and a tendency when an adult to feel anxious around others.
Positive Regard. Psychologist Carl Rogers focused on whether children receive conditional or unconditional positive regard from parents. Conditional love means children are loved only if they obey the dictates of the parent. Children who receive unconditional positive regard are loved and supported even when they go against parental wishes; they are secure in the knowledge that it is their behavior parents do not approve of, not them.
Good vs. Bad Mother. Many psychologists say the most important early determinant of self is the quality of the relationship with mom. Children see a benevolent and loving mom as a good person, and they tend to have high self-esteem; they view an unloving mom as bad, and are likely to have low self-esteem. These levels of self-esteem often persist into adulthood. Adults who have been neglected or abused as children or adolescents often have low self-esteem and see themselves as unlovable. In counseling they say such things as, “How could I expect anyone to love me if my parents didn’t?” With roots going back to childhood, this thinking in an adult can be difficult to change.
Intimacy vs. Rejection. Some children are given too much intimacy and are encouraged to display dependent behavior. The resulting self-concept is imbalanced, and the child grows into adult patterns of narcissism and dependency. The other extreme is found in parents who are busy trying to meet their own needs, and become emotionally distant from their children. As adults the kids suffer loneliness and depression and search for experiences that will fulfill the emotional loss from having distant parents. However, psychological damage can also be done by parents who are overly involved with their children – helicopter parents – and who over-identify with their children’s achievements. Many parents put undue pressure on them to succeed athletically, socially, and academically. Excessive criticism confuses children about the meaning of success and failure, and they see themselves as failures when they lose.
Social Comparison. Parents must be aware of children’s tendency tocompare themselves with schoolmates, same-age peers, and similar-age siblings, particularly same-gender ones. Many children have low self-esteem because they believe their sibling(s) is(are) more adequate in important areas. This negative comparison can occur even when they are performing in the above-average range academically, athletically, or socially. They still see themselves as failures in relation to an extremely successful sibling. Parents must help children put social comparison in perspective, and not use it to define to themselves who they are.
Authoritarian Parent. In childrearing, there is a huge difference between authoritative and authoritarian parents. High self-esteem can be facilitated by authoritative styles of interaction. These parents are warm, supportive, and allow children a degree of autonomy to explore their world; but the parents set clear limits to their children’s behavior and are consistent in their control of rewards and punishers. On the other hand, authoritarian parents are dictatorial, controlling, demanding, and punitive, undermining their children’s feelings of adequacy by treating them as unworthy, untrustworthy, and lacking judgment.
As we said earlier, gaining some insight into your stressors and the coping strategies you use to deal with them, can help you cope better. Just remember, reflecting on your past can be subject to lots of error; memories of childhood are tricky. Evaluating yourself in the present as a parent, however, and examining your style of interaction with your children, can provide valuable understanding when you experience undo anxiety and stress as a parent.