In most cases the development of self-esteem is a kind of transaction between parent and child. The better this relationship works the more the child feels valued, appreciated and safe. Enabling a child to explore their potential within a framework of love, and limits, provides a firm underpinning for development.
Children are also vulnerable. If overly protected, the risk is they become dependant and lack the capacity to deal with challenging situations. If too much is demanded of them it promotes anxiety and a sense of inadequacy.
Our society tends to show its appreciation to children who are more extrovert, competitive and who strive to achieve, and this is great for the development of self-esteem. Those who are quiet, possibly shunned and possibly bullied, are the most likely to have self-esteem issues. A quiet and more reserved child is not however a sign of depression waiting to happen, but they may need more encouragement to socialise.
Not all children are outgoing but care needs to be taken in assuming an alternative lifestyle is a happy alternative. For example, diligence at school and high academic achievement can sometimes mask the fact that a child feels isolated and different. Supportive parents, or relatives who gently encourage social contacts as an alternative to isolation, are doing their child a great favour. As with so many things in life, balance is the key to greater harmony and resilience.
Parents can be soft targets when it comes to any discussion about childhood depression. It is not uncommon to find a lack of parental guidance and support from one or both parents who themselves had emotionally impoverished childhoods. When parents lack good examples themselves it is hardly surprising to find they appear unable to provide such support. Yet, the significance of this to the child can be profound. Every time a child observes parental inability to deal with common or difficult situations means a lost opportunity to learn necessary skills.
In some cases they may be fortunate to receive compensation in the form of a network of relatives, or perhaps a good teacher, but not always. As a child, learning how to be helpless isn’t a difficult thing to acquire and watching other children manage situations so much better simply reinforces a sense of shame and inadequacy.
The development of our character is influences genetically and environmentally. Even children from supportive and loving families are not immune from mood disorders like depression. As parents perhaps the most we can do is provide a dependable and secure infrastructure for our children. Examples of this include:
- Reducing or eliminating negative or needless stress. This could be anything from friction between parents to bullying at school. Parents need to appreciate that it is the child’s perception of stress that is paramount. This means things that parents might trivialize can potentially be highly significant to their children.
- Give time to children. It sets my teeth on edge when I hear the phrase ‘quality time.’ Perhaps it’s not so much the phrase as its implications. It’s as though this is something that can be allocated to a child who is then able to distinguish between quality and ‘other’ time. From the perspective of a child, things are so much simpler; their parent is either with them or isn’t; is giving them attention when they need it, or not. Time isn’t currency that can be traded against absence.
- Teach children their feelings are important. This is really about acknowledging the fact that a problem shared is better than bottling feelings up when you don’t know how to cope, or what to do. Learning to articulate feelings gets easier as we mature so young children will use language or will express themselves in different ways.
The list can go on but it’s important to stress that if your child shows signs of depression it does not mean you have failed as a parent. The development of self-esteem is protection against depression, but depression is a complex and somewhat poorly understood condition. As a parent you mustn’t hesitate to seek out professional help if your child shows symptoms of depression. Seeking help for depression is not a sign of giving in, or of failure as a parent, it is quite simply the most pragmatic and sensible thing to do in order to prevent the situation from worsening.