Self-esteem is a relational term. It describes a relationship between you and yourself. Having a solid sense of esteem for yourself puts you squarely in a partnership that is nurturing and accepting, as well as motivating and energizing.
Where does this relationship with you come from? How is it determined?
The answer for most of us is that our earliest relationships in life set the tone for our inner dialogue. This is good news, because it means that we can explore the origins of low self-esteem and intentionally create new relationships that fuel a more positive view of ourselves. Our childhood does not have to be our destiny.
Let’s explore how early relationships might affect self-esteem by looking at three different ways parents discipline their children: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Of course, parenting consists of more than just discipline, but the methods parents use to teach children right from wrong can have effects that last well into adulthood.
Let’s look at these three typical styles of discipline, and see how they’re likely to affect self-esteem.
1. Authoritarian: In this style, parents are the ultimate and only authority. They rule with an iron hand, and they are obeyed out of fear. Children who disobey the rules – which might be arbitrary or systematic, fair or unreasonable, known ahead of time or stepped on by accident – are punished. The form of punishment can vary, but punishment is the expected outcome of rule-breaking.
This style of discipline can be likened to a military dictatorship. No one gets to vote, and the law is handed down from above. Punishment is swift and merciless.
Children raised with authoritarian parents learn to obey rules, but they do not learn to listen to their intuition or pay attention their own feelings. Their thoughts, values, and opinions are treated as irrelevant by important others. So they learn to treat themselves this way over time.
As adults, children raised in authoritarian homes are likely to have a great deal of self-discipline, but little self-knowledge and generally poor self-esteem. Since their inner workings were apparently irrelevant to their caregivers, they minimize their inner lives and maximize “shoulds” in their self-talk. Such people are intimately familiar with “shoulds.”
2. Permissive: A permissive family is sort of like a country without leadership: it’s a free-for-all, and anarchy reigns. This is terrifying for children, no matter how much kids seem to want their own way. In order to feel secure, children need to know that someone bigger, stronger, and hopefully smarter than them is in charge.
When there are no guidelines or boundaries set around children’s behavior, they come to believe that they do not matter enough for parents to care what they do. They wonder how much they are loved if no one seems to notice whether they’re home at 10 p.m.
It is as natural as clouds for children to conclude that they are unworthy when parented permissively. They may conclude that if they were smarter, prettier, nicer, better in some way then maybe the parent would care. Parental structure lends identity and purpose to a household.
Children of permissive parents often grow into adults who feel lonely, alienated, and unworthy. Their self-esteem is injured by a failure of visibility. They experienced themselves as basically invisible to important others at a time when they needed help to discover who they were, and that they mattered as people.
Permissive parents may sometimes decide to set rules, but children test the boundaries and they often do not stick. As with Authoritarian parenting, the rules are apt to change at the whim of the ruler. This conveys the message that the world is a confusing and untrustworthy place.
3. Authoritative: Authoritative parents have something in common with the rulers of a democratic country. They assume responsibility for leadership, but all citizens have a vote. Children of authoritative parents know where the boundaries are, and they are free to express displeasure with the rules, even if their wishes do not always carry the day.
Authoritative parents use reasonable, age-appropriate punishment that fits the “crime.” Children know ahead of time exactly what will happen if they break the rules, and why. There’s no wondering whether or how they’ll be punished on that particular occasion.
Unexpected punishments and resulting confusion can occur within the other two styles of discipline. Though the rules are consistent and dependable, they’re also flexible enough to accommodate unusual circumstances. For example, a child gets to stay up an hour past her usual bedtime to attend an event that has special importance to her.
Children of authoritative parents enjoy a sense of security about themselves and the world in general. They are more likely to be able to trust others, as well as themselves. They experience the world as a place that makes sense, and others as generally fair and reasonable. They make choices about their behavior, understanding consequences, and develop non-neurotic self-discipline.
It is easy to see why children of authoritative parents have a leg up on others in the self-esteem department. Their objections to the rules are acknowledged and considered. And their good deeds are rewarded as often as the no-no’s are punished.
In other words, children of authoritative parents feel seen and valued for who they are. They know that they matter to important others. Therefore, they matter to themselves. This is the foundation of self-esteem.
All these styles of discipline fall along a continuum. Most parents practice some blend of these, and it is also possible to have one parent with a discipline preference that does not match the other’s.The more often parents are able to discipline with an authoritative style, the more their children will develop good habits, a sense of security, and healthy self-esteem.
© Copyright 2010 by By Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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