I’ll never forget the day that my then four-year-old son Eric told me he just wanted to be a zero. “It hurts too much, Mom,” he said, referring to the anguish of sensory overload that sometimes caused him to melt down in public or lash out at his preschool peers. I hugged my little Buzz Lightyear close—Eric loved his hero so much that it was hard for me to talk him into changing out of his Buzz-themed pajamas. What could I do to help my child?
Fortunately, I knew from an early age that my son was not defined by his behaviors. But building self-worth and confidence in a child who experiences mental health challenges is a difficult task.
In 2016, after six years of metaphorical (and sometimes literal) blood, sweat, and tears, I earned my doctorate in the field of Organizational Leadership. I sometimes joke that I did it just so that I could make my children call me “Dr. Mom.” But to my surprise, I learned quite a bit about parenting a child with mental illness in my academic coursework. Leadership, like parenting, is not about the leader—it’s about the people she serves. As parents, I think we have a duty and a privilege to model effective leadership skills for our children. One of the best ways to tell if we’re succeeding is to pay attention to our children’s own sense of self-worth.
Self-worth is not something we’re born with; it’s something we have to learn and earn. The process of learning to appreciate ourselves inevitably builds confidence, which in turn lets us take risks, fall, and get back up again, stronger, and more importantly, more compassionate.
This process of building a healthy sense of self-worth is critical to all children’s wellbeing. But let’s not kid ourselves: for children who live with mental illness, self-worth can be much more difficult to achieve. In part, this is because the external labels that other people apply come with automatic stereotypes. Instead of seeing children as the wonderfully complex individuals they are, other parents, teachers, and even doctors who don’t know better run the risk of reducing kids to their labels or behaviors.
Having honest conversations with our children about how adults view their labels is an important first step in promoting our children’s sense of self-worth. We have to train kids to advocate for themselves from an early age, because they will likely need to speak up for themselves their entire lives.
Labels Bring Services and Supports
While labels are undoubtedly hard for both parents and children, labels can also come with needed services and resources. Mental illness can affect your child’s ability to perceive and move through the world. Your child may be bullied or struggle with social interactions. Making sure that you have external supports in place is an important step in helping your child to develop self-worth.
Teach your child that asking for help is okay—and that labels don’t define us. For my son Eric, this has meant partnering with his school to make sure he has the supports that he needs. It also means working with a variety of therapists. Group occupational therapy was especially helpful in building my son’s confidence in his peer interactions.
Safe Spaces Build Trust
Another important step in building self-worth is to create safe spaces for your child. Can your child talk to you about anything? Does your child have a place where he or she feels safe? Make a plan with your child’s school to establish a safe space, and make sure your child has a place at home as well. Helping your child to express feelings honestly and without self-judgement is an important step in self-regulation. This can be especially important after a mental health crisis. When the situation is safe and your child is able to do so, debrief (what went wrong) and plan for the future (what will go right next time)
Choice and Accountability Creates Character
The ultimate goal of building self-worth is to allow your child to soar. With this goal in mind, we can’t do everything for our children or make their lives perfect. While it can be tempting to intervene when your child makes mistakes, providing your child with age-appropriate choices and allowing for natural consequences will build resilience.
Now, when Eric and I talk about his future, he wants to reach “infinity and beyond,” a joking reference to his childhood hero Buzz Lightyear. Eric told me that when parents create a safe space and recognize their children’s strengths, children learn to recognize their value to themselves, to their family, and to their community. Eric also emphasized the importance of skill building—learning to recognize negative thoughts and contextualize them while also learning to accept accountability for mistakes along the way. Finally, he said, “find a supportive peer group. That’s what Youth MOVE is all about.” (for more information about Youth MOVE, visit https://www.youthmovenational.org/ )
The world is not always a kind place, but we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness. As we teach our children to ask for help, trust themselves, and make good choices, they will develop positive self-worth and become lifelong advocates for change and hope.