Dear David Coleman: 'I worry that my seven-year-old never seems to accept praise'
Q I worry about my eldest boy, age seven. He hates getting praise and doesn't like to be centre of attention. He hid an award from school about being pupil of the week in his class. Anytime I look up lack of confidence in children it's always that they've been given out to a lot; but we are very relaxed parents. It's like he doesn't see any value in himself. He even told me he didn't want presents from Santa this year and it broke my heart a little. What can I do to help him?
David replies: It sounds to me like your son has low self-esteem and I think this might be the area to focus on more than his self-confidence. Self-esteem is all about how we value ourselves and see ourselves as worthy, or not. I always consider self-esteem to have two main elements; how lovable we feel and how capable we feel.
It is worth making sure that there is nothing happening at school that might be impacting him in these areas. Check with his teacher about how he is getting on socially and academically.
From the way you describe your son, it may be that he struggles with both aspects of his self-esteem. To boost his sense of lovability you need to focus on helping him to feel emotionally supported and fully accepted by you. The best way to do that is to use lots of empathy to show him the you might understand how he feels.
In practice it means attuning yourself to the ups and downs of his mood and reflecting them back to him without judgement. So, if he seems upset then simply say to him "oh, you sound really upset about that…" or "I wonder if you are really upset about that…". You don't have to take away the upset, just help him to recognise what the feeling is. What this shows him is that whatever he feels you are willing to just acknowledge how he feels and accept him whatever his mood.
Also, by just empathising and not rushing to "fix" any problems that he seems to have (like not being willing to accept praise), you give him the opportunity to recognise any problems and perhaps come up with his own solutions to difficulties, which is an important part of feeling capable.
To further help build his capability, you will need to focus on giving him opportunities to contribute to family life, such that he can experience that sense of being valued and being useful. The more opportunities you can give him to make decisions too, the more capable he will feel. At the moment he may struggle to make any decisions because he may doubt his own judgement, or may feel too negative about himself. However, it is worth persevering with him, even if it is just small decisions about less important things.
His sense of capability will also be boosted by helping him to recognise the things that he is good at. Rather than focusing too much on telling him how proud you might be of any of his achievements, you can encourage him to be proud of himself for those achievements. This helps him to start to make positive evaluations of himself. Be careful too that you simply correct his behaviour, rather than appear critical of it.
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