Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kids and Self-Esteem

I just got back from a 2-week vacation hiking in Peru. It’s a really beautiful country, but also really poor. On the plane, I read a book called the Narcissism Epidemic, and a few thoughts clicked in my mind, connecting Peru, self-esteem and child alienation in divorce.

In the Narcissism Epidemic, the authors (researchers Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) make a very important point: Self-esteem comes from success; success doesn’t come from self-esteem. They give one example after another of too much self-esteem (overconfidence; narcissism) leading people to fail. It’s the opposite of what you would think. It actually hurts kids to give them the message that they should always be the center of attention, that they get to make most of the decisions about their lives, and that they are automatically special. Too much of this can lead to narcissistic personality disorder.

Instead, it’s important for kids to learn that it takes effort and learning skills to succeed. Ironically, the researchers found that Asian children have the lowest self-esteem and the highest academic success. It makes me think about the rental car company that was always trying harder. When people are over-confident, they don’t try very hard. This doesn’t mean that children should feel bad about themselves, but that children shouldn’t get the message that they are superior to everyone else or that life is filled with automatic rewards. And they shouldn’t get the message that children can decide how to live or who to live with.

This brings me back to Peru. In the city and in the countryside, children seemed happy. Children as young as 5 years old were working on the family farms, herding cattle, helping plant corn and potatoes, and running the snack stands for passing hikers. They were an important part of the family effort. Their happiness and self-esteem came from their important role as a contributor to the family. Schools were very important buildings in the communities, and the children seemed to take their school books and studying very seriously. Of course, my view was very brief and from the perspective of an outsider. But a study reported in the New York Times in 2005 indicated that people from several countries in Latin America (including Peru) had happier people than you would expect from their economic situations – so perhaps my observations were accurate.

This brings me to children’s self-esteem in divorce. Unfortunately, in our more “modern” culture, we often feel that we must be overly careful about not hurting children’s self-esteem – especially children of divorce. Many divorced parents feel guilty and afraid to set limits, to have expectations, and to upset their kids. In fact, it’s important for kids to get the message that you believe they are resilient, that they can succeed with effort and learning skills, and that emotions are just emotions – not something to tiptoe around.

Divorce, in and of itself, does not harm children. It’s the way children are taught to interpret the divorce. High-conflict divorce hurts kids because it includes a lot of anger, blame, sometimes abuse and sometimes false allegations. If a parent doesn’t take his or her anger out on the child or the other parent, then children don’t become alienated. If a parent supports the other parent as much as realistically possible, then children don’t become alienated.

I met a judge once after I gave a seminar to judges, who said that he was raised primarily by a single mother after a divorce. He said he thought he actually benifitted because he was expected to be more responsible around the home, to manage his emotions in an appropriate manner and to be more respectful than other children. I believe it is possible for children of divorce to actually learn more skills for being more successful in life than many non-divorced children learn today in our narcissistic culture, where they can be focused on themselves.

What do you think? Does divorce itself damage childrens self-esteem, or is it the way children are treated by parents, teachers, family and friends after a divorce? And if children are allowed and encouraged to make most of the decisions about their own lives, doesn’t this encourage alienation by allowing a child to “choose” not to see one of his or her parents? How do you teach your child to help others and contribute to your family, even after a divorce? Please read my new book, Don't Alienate The Kids! and please leave a comment.


Anonymous said...

I am a never married mom of 2 separated after many years coping with a 'high conflict' narcissistic/border line man. One reason - the reason - I worked at this relationship so long and continue to is that I believe kids need and 'have a right to' a family, a home.

The current push for kids to 'have 2 parents' attempts to side step this issue .It expects kids - and not adults - to 'be resilient' , to suck it up and move between 2 'homes'.

Kids learn by observing their parents' relationship with each other- they learn how a man treats a woman and vice versa. They learn by observiation cooperation, showing affection, being kind, respect, dealing with life, etc. I recall my parents daily ritual of making their bed - it was big as they were both tall and it was best done together.

I know as a single parent I often need help with some simple task - eg moving furniture - that a husband would normally help with. My kids do not see cooperation between parents. They do not see a man honouring , helping, sharing affection with a woman.They do not see commitment in the face of conflict and life's difficulty.

OR I have to create situations where this will happen somehow. This is challenging, especially since HCP father undermines efforts to teach kids to eg do housework , have high expectations etc

I often think it is better for kids , if there is not to be an even somewhat healthy marriage, when there is just one parent and the other is not there at all. I have seen kids of both sexes do very well - intelligent, empathetic, skilled, helpful, etc - raised by moms (don't know dads in this situation) on their with no dad to struggle with.

A big challenge is trying to raise a child 'co-parenting' with a hostile angry, narcissistic parent who has little capacity for concern for children's long term well being and 'success' at life.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about children coping with a high-conflict co-parent - especially one who undermines your efforts to teach them responsibility, etc. There are many parents in this situation today. In the short term you do the best you can during your time with them. They will learn a lot from seeing that your positive methods of dealing with life are more successful than the negative methods of the other parent.

In the long-term, I think limited parenting time and real skill-training are needed for high conflict parents, so that they can contribute better and have a less negative influence on the children. Someday the courts will require more intensive training for high-conflict parents, as parenting classes alone often don't reach them.

I can empathize with your thoughts about it being easier if there was no co-parent in their lives. I used to counsel children in the 1980's from single-parent homes and they really missed having contact. Perhaps the best solution is limited contact until HCP parents can demonstrate better skills.

Best wishes!