Tuesday 23 January 2018

Dear David Coleman: We are worried about our five-year-old daughter's self-esteem as she tells us she doesn't like her face

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

Q. My husband and I are increasingly worried about our five-year-old daughter. On a number of occasions she has stated that she doesn't like her face. She is reluctant to get her photo taken, and when we do get a photo, she often gets upset, insisting that it is deleted. She is a friendly, beautiful, clever girl and we don't want this to escalate and affect her self-esteem. When she was a toddler she fell, hitting her front tooth, which then turned grey. We're not sure if this has anything to do with her impression of herself. How can we help her?

David replies: Strange as it may sound, I suggest that you don't try to deny, or invalidate, your daughter's opinion about how she looks. For whatever reason, she doesn't like her face and I could imagine that no protestations from you, about how pretty you think she is, make a difference.

Indeed, simply countering her opinion with your own may serve to consolidate or entrench her own perspective.

I think you need to be very empathetic with her about how she perceives herself. So, you might make comments like, "you seem very unhappy with the way you look", or "I wonder if you don't like your grey tooth. I guess it could be upsetting for you."

Comments like these validate her perspective. It is okay to show her that you can understand her perspective, even if you happen to hold a very different view.

Once she knows that you understand how she feels about the way she looks, she may be more open, or willing, to let you know more about her experience. She may also be more willing to hear that you see her differently.

Don't push things when it comes to photos, or other situations when her feelings about how she looks are relevant. Allow her to make choices about whether she is included in a photo and allow her to decide if she wants to cropped out of a picture that you want to keep because it includes others.

This isn't about pandering to her; it is about respecting her. Her self-esteem may take more of a knock if she feels people don't respect her, don't listen to her and don't value her opinion, than it will from her own negative view of her face.

Self-esteem is about how we view our sense of being lovable and being capable. We get lots of feedback from others about these two aspects of our being.

People can show us how much they love us, how they want to be with us, how they accept us and respect us. They can also demonstrate how valued we are because of what we know, what we have achieved, what we are able to do and how useful our skills and talents are.

These are the external prompts that your daughter will, most likely, rely on to determine her own overall view of her herself.

For now, it seems that the only really negative view of herself that she holds is of her facial features, perhaps even as specific as this grey tooth. As long as she still feels loved, accepted, wanted and useful she is likely to maintain high levels of self-esteem.

So, your acknowledgement of her feelings, about how she looks, is a respectful way to show her that, no matter how she feels about herself, you still love her, you still find her pretty, you still want to be with her, you still know how important a member of your family she is.

Over time you may be able to gently challenge her perspective about her face, but only if you have first shown her that you can understand that perspective, even if you don't agree with it. The grey tooth will also fall out, to be replaced by her permanent teeth.

You can minimise the attention that you and others pay to her face, and focus on all of the other really positive attributes, talents and personality characteristics that make her such a lovely child.

If her self-esteem is being bolstered in all of the other areas where she shines, her negative view of her face is less likely to be a long-term cause for concern. Minimising the focus on perceived negatives and maximising the focus on perceived positives should tip the balance in the right direction.

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