My 10-year-old son slinked into my room, crestfallen. I asked him what was wrong, and his shoulders sank lower. After some coaxing, he reluctantly relinquished his confession.
“I’m not a good person.”
I sat in stunned silence for a moment, trying to take in what he had just said. Had something happened? Had he committed a grievous act I was unaware of? My knee-jerk reaction was to assure him he was wrong.
He shook his head, and tears began to fall.
“Why would you think that?” I pressed him further.
“You say that I’m a good big brother, but I pushed my brother. I’m not a good brother.” His head fell, avoiding meeting my eyes.
" Have I done something to make my son feel this way?"
I began to put the pieces together. He had just been sent to his room after a heated interaction with his five-year-old brother. They had been playing, which had turned into arguing, and then gotten physical on both sides, as often happens with brothers who are learning how to handle conflict. I had punished his actions. He had applied it to his character.
What followed was a long discussion about good people making mistakes, and missteps not cancelling out who we are fundamentally as people. But the talk was perhaps more illuminating for me than it was for him. It rapidly became clear my son was suffering from a phenomenon I know well — impostor syndrome.
In its simplest terms, impostor syndrome is a form of low self-esteem in which people discredit or downplay their accomplishments.
How Parents Can Help
How can a parent help to foster healthy self-esteem in a child? These tips can make a big difference:
Be careful what you say. Kids can be sensitive to parents’ and others’ words. Remember to praise your child not only for a job well done, but also for effort.
Be a positive role model. If you’re excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your kids might eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem and they’ll have a great role model.
Identify and redirect inaccurate beliefs. It’s important for parents to identify kids’ irrational beliefs about themselves, whether they’re about perfection, attractiveness, ability, or anything else.
Be spontaneous and affectionate. Your love will help boost your child’s self-esteem.
Give positive, accurate feedback. Comments like “You always work yourself up into such a frenzy!” will make kids feel like they have no control over their outbursts
Create a safe, loving home environment. Kids who don’t feel safe or are abused at home are at greatest risk for developing poor self-esteem.
Help kids become involved in constructive experiences. Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem.