Q. I have a 7-year-old, and I'd like to know what do you do when he says he hates himself.
-- G.B., East Cleveland, Ohio
A. When a child makes such extreme comments, his parents must evaluate how serious the problem is by asking the child why he hates himself, experts and readers say. His answers will determine the next step.
The topic of self-esteem is so complex that we're addressing this question in two parts. Last week's column focused on evaluating the severity of low self-esteem by talking to the child and his teachers. This week's Child Life offers solutions such as parental coaching and encouragement to boost a child's sagging self-image.
Once you hone in on what's triggering "I hate myself" remarks, work on whatever academic, social and athletic skills the child needs to feel good about himself, suggests Karen Owens, author of "Raising Your Child's Inner Self-Esteem" (Plenum Publishing, $24.95).
"Love and praise aren't enough in the real world," she says.
But if love and encouragement from supportive parents are combined with skill-building, higher self-esteem naturally follows, says Ms. Owens, a psychology professor at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill.
"Help him bring to mind what he is capable of, then go back and help the child develop skills in the area of concern," suggests Bettie B. Youngs, of San Diego, author of "How to Develop Self-Esteem in Your Child" (Ballantine & Fawcett, $10).
For example, remind the poor math student that he's a good writer, then hire a math tutor. Praise how fast your aspiring ball player runs, then take him to a batting cage to improve his hitting skills.
Acting classes and sports are two ways to improve a youngster's self-confidence, suggests reader June Hirsch of Sun City, Ariz. "The more confident he is, the more I think he would like himself," she says.
Competence is just one factor that affects self-esteem, Ms. Youngs says. Others include whether a child feels physically safe and emotionally secure, is accepted by others and accepts himself, and believes that his life has purpose.
To nurture a child's self-image, it's important for parents to "never stop the positives," says Debora Phillips, author of "How to Give Your Child a Great Self-Image" (Random House, $3.99).
Ms. Phillips, a behavior therapist in Manhattan and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School, suggests these ways parents can build confidence in their children:
Praise your child four times a day with concrete compliments, particularly in areas where he's weak. For a child who has trouble making friends, notice even the smallest steps: "That was nice of you to talk to the new girl in your class today."
Encourage your child to look you in the eye and accept the compliment with a "thank you," instead of shrugging it off.
After a month of compliments, ask the child to tell you one thing that he feels good about himself for that day. As he works up to expressing three things he likes about himself each day, he will become more comfortable talking about himself in a favorable light.
Allow your child to express his feelings.
Help him be more assertive if he's being teased or rejected.
"Focus on the positive of what (your) children can do rather than what they don't like about themselves," agrees Reader Randy Jones of Chapel Hill, N.C.
It's from the positive that the child makes strides, Ms. Youngs says. As mom and dad talk about ways their son is a loyal friend, for example, he may realize that broad statements such as, "Nobody at school likes me" are not really true, and what he's good at looms larger in his mind than his failures.
"Don't lie or say don't worry about it," Ms. Youngs says. But do encourage him to be more realistic about friendships or a subject or sport that doesn't come easily.
That way, life's ups and downs won't seem like the end of the world.
If you've tried to help your child feel better about himself and nothing seems to work, talk to your health-care provider about getting professional help, the experts say.
Can you help?
Hair twirler: "My 2-year-old has sucked her thumb and twirled her hair since birth, but now she's starting to twirl it to the point where she's got a big bald patch," says Debbie Barber of Burton, Ohio. "She's lost a lot of hair, and I'm wondering how to get her to stop doing that."
Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. If you have advice, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2322 Hales Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org