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From birth, a child begins on a journey of self-awareness, self-understanding and navigates challenges as they develop their own understanding of self.

As a parent, helping your child process these unavoidable challenges can be quite beneficial to their emotional development.  

Stages of Emotional Development

0-12 mo

  • Can smile spontaneously and use facial expressions to communicate
  • Can calm self down
  • Can recognize primary caregivers faces.

12-36 mo

  • Are learning how to reconcile multiple emotions at the same time.
  • Temper tantrums become evident.
  • They are beginning to develop a concept of “self” and can use terms to describe themselves: I’m 3 years old. I am taller than my brother. I have blond hair.

3-5 yrs

  • Can play and entertain themselves.
  • Beginning to express their feelings with words.
  • Understand that one can have multiple feelings at the same time.
  • Can begin to understand cause and effect.
  • Develops empathy for others.

5-8 yrs

  • Has the ability to share feelings.
  • Is more focussed on developing peer relationships.
  • Understands consequences and begins to negotiate consequences of their choices/actions.

Development of Inner Self

Around 5-7 years of age, a child begins to develop memories of themselves. This autobiographical reference to their individual self is where their foundation of their identity is created.

Early self concepts are based on observable traits and behaviors a child exhibits. They internalize messaging they receive that then becomes part of their self esteem. Children that are praised for actions oftentimes take more risks to try new things. These new attempts are oftentimes reinforced with praise. These interactions all help cultivate strong self esteem and sense of identity.

Helping Your Child Develop Health Self-Esteem

During this developmental period, children begin to see differences in physical appearances of peers. They may wonder why one child’s skin is darker than another. Or why one is in a wheelchair and another walks with a limp. It’s important that a parent address these differences as factual and not assign a value to these traits. For instance, a parent should avoid saying “Poor Jane is in a wheelchair and cannot walk. Isn’t that sad?” Or “John can run really fast and that is good because he can win races.”  

I suggest including statements like, “Everyone has things about them that make them special and important. All these differences make our world interesting and exciting.” This type of statement can frame a child’s perspective to not only be accepting of others differences but also to be okay with differences they may see in themselves.

Avoid Over Praising

One thing I caution parents on is paying attention to how using statements like “You’re the best!” or overpraising basic tasks like picking up their toys. Remember, self esteem comes from being loved, feeling safe and developing competence. This takes time and over-praising your child can create a false expectation regarding what is involved in building healthy identity and self esteem.

Over praising can have an adverse effect on self esteem. Children that are subject to over-praising may believe their behavior is perfect, or that they have to act perfect all the time in order to live up to your expectations.

Children need to take risks and experience failure as much as experiencing success. Allow your child to make choices. One good area is around clothing. Letting your child choose an outfit that they like but doesn’t match has more positive impact on self esteem than having one that does match and have people compliment how nice they look.

Goals to Succeed

Help your child set achievable goals. For instance if your child is struggling with reading, have them set a goal to read a book to you by the end of the month. Have them decide a time each day to read to you. The reward isn’t praise, but the satisfaction of accomplishing the goal and spending quality time with you. Be prepared to witness frustration, anger, tantrums and downright refusal. Just focus on sticking with the goal and making time for your child to read.

Most Important Thing to Remember

The most important thing to remember about helping your child develop a healthy identity and good self esteem is to let them know you love them unconditionally.

Emily Bendlin, MD

Methodist Physicians Clinic - Gretna

Dr. Bendlin loves working with kids and their parents. She has always enjoyed caring for kids.  "I've always liked medicine, but more importantly I've always liked kids," Dr. Bendlin said. "During my pediatric rotation it was the 'aha' moment. It was so fun and I was so excited when I went home. I knew at that time this is it for me – pediatrics is where I’m supposed to be." According to Dr. Bendlin, "Working with kids is fun. What other ...

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