Most parents intuitively know that children need to feel good about themselves to be happy and to progress in life - the same applies to adults - but practically speaking, how does this work? What do we need to be doing or saying to our children to ensure that they grow up to be happy adults, with a strong 'sense of self' and the ability to take on the world?
(1) Get on with your partner
No-one is pretending that it is easy to sustain a long-term relationship with someone whilst raising children but don't be in any doubt: how you 'get on' with each other has a massive impact on how your child feels about themselves. Recent research by the Early Intervention Foundation shows that unresolved inter-parental conflict can seriously affect children's long-term mental health and well-being. Witnessing ongoing and unresolved conflict can cause children to be aggressive, hostile and even violent. It contributes to the development of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. It can also badly affect their performance in school and the development of emotional and social skills.
So what can you do?
If things are ticking along nicely for you as a couple, keep to these few pointers and you hardly go wrong; make your partner feel valued, as an individual and as 'the parent'; show your children what love 'looks like' between you; try to present a united front when dishing out the discipline, and most importantly, keep bigger disagreements until the kids are out of earshot.
If you are separated or in a difficult relationship with your partner, the latter rules still apply, but your child will need help navigating through the experience of living between two parents, homes, bedrooms and sets of family dynamics. Splitting up doesn't have to be a negative experience for children, but only if parents make their child's well-being the top priority.
Whatever your family set-up, don't be afraid to give your relationship an MOT or spring clean. Counsellors and couple therapists are there to help keep happy couples on track, as much as to sort out crises.
(2) Help your child shape their self-story
During pregnancy and throughout childhood, parents instinctively gather pictures of their children as they grow and develop. Pictures of our children are among the most precious of family artefacts and often listed among the 'first thing people would rescue from a house fire!' Besides being a record of family events, these images serve another critical function: they help shape children's emerging sense of self and belonging in the world. They tell the story of how our child was welcomed and wanted, and reveal the physical places and people that played a role in their early childhood. They document our children's physical progression and highlight their early achievements and milestones.
As parents we tend to focus on the future, but there are gifts in retrospection. Photographic material, film and family stories help create both self-identity, and family identity. They provide a foundational resource from which a child's positive self-esteem emerges.
In families where there may have been relationship breakdown, illness or death, a recalling and documenting of the past, with positive guidance from a loving parent or carer can help children move forward securely. Remember when you are cuddled up flicking through phone snaps or recounting family stories over the dinner table, emphasise joy and resilience. As a family, look forward to the next chapters of family life, as yet unwritten. Relish retrospection whilst conveying a sense of excitement about the future.
(3) Nip 'weeds' in the bud
It is normal for families to go through peaks and troughs throughout the year, but when issues arise for your child that are persistent and that affect the quality of their day-to-day life, parents need to tackle the problem head-on. Issues such as anxiety,problems with sleep and consistently poor behaviour at school, for example, are common 'weeds' that need to be nipped in the bud. Otherwise, what may start out as a small problem, can end up escalating badly, affecting siblings and other family members. Remember: whatever the issue, face-to-face help is out there or the end of a phone.
(4) Don't underestimate the power of modelling
'Modelling' is a concept frequently referred to by educators, but it lies at the core of great parenting too. It refers to how we model attitudes, behaviour and approaches to the children who live or work closely with us. Young children learn through observation and quickly absorb how their caretakers approach difficulties, relationships, good news or personal challenges. They learn how to respond, behave and even 'what to say' in each scenario, from us. As parents, our role is pivotal in shaping how they respond to the world around them so it makes sense to reflect on how we approach everyday challenges as individuals. Consider how you cope and react to being stuck in a traffic jam for example, right through to how you manage the loss of a loved one. However parents respond - rest assured your off-spring are watching and learning.
(5) Tell them that you will always love them, no matter what
No matter their age, whether they are six or sixteen years old, children need to know that you won't stop loving them, no matter what happens in life, and no matter the path they take. Of course we work hard to help them steer a good course throughout childhood and the teen years, and understand that it isn't always easy for them. However, their knowledge of our unconditional love gives children a good dose of self-worth and the inner strength to face any life obstacle. A child's self-esteem is carefully constructed over time (imagine a wall made from Lego) brick by brick, its strength against life's knocks reinforced by strong parental attachments steeped in love, affection and reassurance.
Finally, please remember that years and years of research by psychologists and educators shows that the earlier you follow these tips, the better.