Sunday 8 December 2019

Dear David Coleman: How can I stop my daugher apologising for herself and putting herself down?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

How can I stop my daugher apologising for herself and putting herself down?

David replies: I have an 11-year-old daughter who doesn't stop saying sorry and apologising for herself. It can be over the smallest of things, even when she isn't in the wrong, but she will always say sorry. I keep telling her not to say sorry, but at this stage I am almost afraid to correct her because she will be so hard on herself. She can be very emotional about anything and keeps putting herself down. Everyone is always better than her, or they are right and she is wrong. I worry about how she will be in secondary school; that everyone will walk all over her.

It does sound like your daughter's self-esteem is very low. I could imagine it is both very upsetting, and very frustrating, to watch her putting herself down so much and appearing to apologise for her very existence.

I am intrigued to know how this might have developed for her? Often it is something like bullying, or repeated criticism from parents or teachers. Sometimes a child's own temperament, if they are perfectionistic or overly-conscientious for example, can cause them difficulty. Sometimes changes in self-esteem are subtle and happen slowly over time such that it can be hard to pinpoint a particular time when it seemed to worsen.

However, or whenever it started for your daughter, it does seem like low self-esteem is her key problem. All of the things you describe, putting herself down, apologising for everything, seeing herself at the bottom of the social hierarchy, all suggest that her self-esteem has been eroded. I often think of self-esteem as having two main components, our sense of lovability and our sense of capability. Lovability often takes a knock when we feel excluded or not wanted by others. Capability takes more of a knock when we feel negatively compared to others, or feel we just can't compete with others' talents or skills.

It isn't clear to me from your query whether it is her sense of lovability or her sense of capability that is more affected. Perhaps it is both.

Building up our sense of lovability comes from acceptance and inclusion. This can be hard to achieve while any bullying by exclusion is happening. So, if you are aware that might be an issue for her, try to resolve it by talking with other adults that might be able to influence the social situation she finds herself in.

Be very clear, then, in your own interactions with her that you love her and accept her. That might mean holding back on your frustration with how negatively she sees herself. It might also mean showing lots of empathy and understanding to her. Ensuring she has opportunities to play with friends who like her and want to be in her company will also help.

Building up her sense of capability involves a range of different things. To start, you can help her to identify her strengths and abilities. What does she feel she is good at doing, or enjoys doing, where she gets positive feedback from other people?

It can be a powerful experience for a child to be helped to list all of the good things about themselves. That might include helping them to realise all of their positive personal qualities like kindness, generosity, loyalty, thoughtfulness and so on.

Whilst focused on her strengths, however, don't just focus on her achievements and her successes. Try to notice also, her effort and commitment to things too. Working hard is just as valuable as what is produced by that hard work.

Be careful to avoid criticising her and help her to see her mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason to be punished. How you phrase things is very important here. At the moment she seems to punish herself wherever she perceives failure. So, your ability to acknowledge and accept her imperfection without criticism may help.

Try also to give her opportunities to help as this can make her feel valuable and useful. Where possible, allow her to make her own choices and encourage her to solve her own problems rather than rushing in to fix everything for her.

Building self-esteem can take time and patience, but it sounds like it is exactly what she needs.

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