Saturday, July 24, 2010

Self-esteem: It's not a Trophy, It's Reality

One major question that we as parents of special needs children face is, how do we instill in our children self-esteem while they face sometimes seemingly insurmountable issues. What tools do we have at our disposal to help our children understand their own worth and value in a society that prizes absolute perfection?


I know that we are not the only parents that face this issue. Parents in general are dealing with a society that airbrush magazine covers so a model fits a particular figure ideal, value straight As and AP courses, perfect college boards and a society that pays someone who can dunk a basketball untold millions of dollars. Nowhere does society seem to value the average person who goes to work every day and makes this country what it is. No where do we see the value in the hard worker who values ethics and family and morals and values above and beyond a flashy lifestyle. It permeates our culture to the extent that getting ahead at any price is important. A recent Wall Street Journal article detailed the lengths that colleges have to go to in order to avoid cheating during exams. It has gone beyond http://turnitin.com for paper submissions to strategically placed video surveillance cameras, confiscation of cell phones during exams, checking laptops for forbidden programs and requiring the old fashioned #2 pencil and Bic pen instead of the new fangled computer-pens of which the students seem to be so enamored .

No where within our world is anyone lauded for just being who they are if it doesn’t amount to more than the basic American Middle class life. There is no value in even just trying and there is no value in being the best you can be if that best does not lead you to the mansion on the hill.

Now don’t get me wrong about something very important. I am not an advocate of the “self-esteem” movement that everyone gets a trophy at the end of a baseball game because they showed up or that whether you want to do something or not is the impetus for your actions. Sometimes in life we need to know that you can try your best and it may not be good enough to win the ball game. Yes, there should be the good try pat on the back, but then the child also needs to learn to persevere and keep trying to better their game and themselves. The child needs to learn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and soldier on. When life hands you a problem you need to know how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start again. Any parent of a special needs child knows that, and we do our children no good by protecting them from learning the art of perseverance. Knowing how to persevere is what will guarantee them the right to be what they want to be in this world.

Ok, so what kind of self-esteem am I talking about when speaking of our children? I am talking about how we as parents help our children come to terms with their invisible disabilities and do not let it overcome and defeat them. We need to find a way for them to understand that they have a lot of worth even if they never end up taking Calculus 2 or Linear Physics. Heck we need to teach our children self-worth even if they are never able to memorize the multiplication tables or understand the little exceptions to writing the English language. (You remember, i before e except after c.)

Anyone who reads this blog knows that my oldest son is in college and the youngest one is now a senior in highschool. I do talk about how their day to day lives are affected by their aspergers and other disabilities. But they did not start out as young men. They started out as young children confused by a world that they did not understand. So when I speak of highschool classes or the college application process, I hope that you can extrapolate some of what I tell you to your immediate issues, because the methodology is truly all the same.

So where to start with self-esteem? Hubby and I had had an ongoing issue about whether to tell collegeman that he had aspergers syndrome. Hubby felt that to tell him would make him feel really bad about himself. I was of the opposite notion, that it would give him an explanation of why things for him are different. Collegeman already knew that he was different. There was a para who helped him throughout his day. He was pulled out for speech and other academic help. He had originally been put in a special school for children with autism before they brought him back in district. He attended town camp but in the special district/camp program created for ESY. So he knew that in many ways he was not like the other children. Luckily the new elementary school psychologist told us that it was a good idea to tell him about the aspergers. It was the best thing we ever did. He was so relieved.

He now understood what the issue was and why he found things so much harder than his peers. Interestingly it also gave him the reason to do better. He knew it wasn’t his fault, he did not do anything wrong and that some things were out of his control. We also emphasized to him that just because you couldn’t see that the other children had issues didn’t mean that they didn’t have problems. Everyone has something that they need to deal with or learn to handle and that just because you could tell that collegeman had problems did not mean he truly was any different than anyone of his classmates. They could just hide it. Also problems don’t always mean the same thing for everyone. That there are children who find the things he is good at hard too. In fact the idea that he could persevere is a gift that a lot of people don’t have and have to work at it. He liked that a lot and it made him feel really good about himself.

We at times forget that small children tend to blame themselves when things don’t work out so well in our lives. When there are problems children, who are egocentric human beings, happen to think many things occur because of them. That if they did better or if they tried harder if they could listen better then everything would be ok. Now a child with a disability has problems in every area that is important in a child’s life, as things get harder for them and everyone around them surpasses them in every way they will find a way to blame themselves. If given a reason for why things are so hard for them, whether academically or on the soccer field, then it goes a long way to helping them keep and grow their self-esteem. They understand it isn’t their fault at all, that sometimes it’s just the way things are and that their genetic make-up or God, if you will, made them this way.

Perhaps that is why collegeman doesn’t believe in God. Not so much the aspie need for logic and the need for tactile proof of reality. But the idea that if there was a God would he/she truly allow for autism or any form of trauma in the world. You can explain to him the idea of the Garden of Eden and man’s fall from grace, but he just doesn’t by it. For religion views God as the parent and parents are supposed to love and forgive their children their foibles not continually punish them for errors, and especially for the errors that are not in their control. He especially lost any interest in God after he studied the Holocaust. He is done with God for now. Is atheism the height of self-esteem or egocentrism as some say, I don’t really know. But I would prefer an atheist child to one that thinks poorly of themselves. Yes, we do have some interesting discussions in our house and some interesting perspectives on life.

The other way to help with their self-esteem is to help them persevere. Yes, they may have certain learning and developmental disabilities that make it extraordinarily hard for them on ay levels. But they need to learn at a young age, that it is ok to have these disabilities. What is not ok is to use it as an excuse to not try. See I do not say to succeed, but to not try. Anyone who has kept up with this year knows that HSB had the most horrific year in algebra 2 and chemistry. He started having real problems in math with geometry. He just couldn’t wrap his brain around the way it works. I had the impression that seeing the application of geometry would make it easier for him, but unbeknownst to me geometry and every ensuing math is extremely abstract. Abstract reasoning is not something HSB does well. (Neither does collegeman for that fact). He cannot extrapolate how something taught one way can be applied in an entirely different situation. He can learn the formula and where to plug in the numbers, but its finding those numbers when the problem is different that causes the pain, angst and the meltdowns.

Now, did he struggle? Yes. Did he have meltdowns? Yes. Did he learn to persevere? Yes. Was it easy, not on your life. But when the end of the year came and he not only passed these two classes, but passed them both with a 74 average, HSB was elated and you know what so were we. High fives and fist bumps all around and a special trip to the video game store ensued once that report card showed up in the mail. HSB’s self-esteem was hard won this year. But it was a win worthwhile. He learned that if he stuck to his guns and worked hard as he could, he can accomplish anything.

Collegeman was always a little different than HSB in this vein. Collegeman was always one that persevered and never shut down. If something was hard for him he worked at it and worked at it. What was hard for collegeman to accept was that when he worked really hard it did not always mean he received an “A.” Sometimes you work really hard and you end up with a “C.” We had to teach him that a hard won “C” was something to be more proud of than an easy “A.” It took him awhile to understand that concept. I am not sure that he does get it, and truthfully in this world it is hard to grasp when you can’t get into law school with a transcript full of “C’s” instead of “A’s.” (Meanwhile, he does get predominately good grades.)What the future holds over the next few years as far as grades and school is anyone’s guess. We are working out different scenarios for collegeman just in case. Nothing is assured, even if you apply for college/law school/graduate school/ any post-secondary educational institution with straight “A’s” and perfect boards, so having a Plan B and a Plan C is really a good idea. Actually it’s a really good idea for everyone not just for persons with disabilities. (But this again comes back to my opening paragraphs where society has different standards than what we may need to create for our children. Just one more thing we have to deal with and one more thing we do need to prepare for.)

HSB is not in the zone where he gets to choose most of his classes yet. In highschool you still need to take the requisite courses whether you can excel at them or not. He still has to take math and science next year. He will have to take his lessons on perseverance through his senior year of highschool. (Notwithstanding he will need the lessons on perseverance for the rest of his life.) Hopefully he will have learned the lessons and will have internalized the lesson in self-esteem. Hopefully if something becomes hard for him he will not shut down but will remember how capable he is and how much strength of character he possesses. Thankfully we will not have to deal with that for another month. So for now it’s just time for him to continue to pull himself together, enjoy his respite and concentrate on his video games.

Throughout the years we have established a regime that helps the boys function at home. This aides and supports the success that they have at school and aides in the devlopment of their self-esteem.

1. Schedule everything they do. Use a white board or a Velcro board and write out a daily schedule. Let them have input and help decide when somethings will get done. Work in breaks and fun time too. This is an essential tool for during the school year when your child brings home homework and has after school activities. One of the things that upsets our children the most is having no idea what is happening and when. You will find when they have control over their environment there will be less meltdowns and more cooperation even when they are doing homework.

2. Acknowledge if your child has a learning disability. Whether it is a language processing or math processing disorder the schools should offer extra support during the day but do not expect the problem to resolve itself when they get home. You may need to hire tutoring services or an on-line support program like Tutor.com if you cannot help them appropriately.

3. You should try to coordinate with the school as to what is happening during the day and what supports they offer your child. Try to do the same supports at home. If your child needs directions explained again and again then do that at home. If they need reading instruction and comprehension support you may need to lend your time to that as well. You need to recognize that the days of children doing homework alone, especially those with learning disabilities, is a thing of the past.

4. Routines are very important. Make sure that routines, not just schedules are followed. When your child knows the time to eat dinner, take a bath and what to expect at bedtime it is helpful in creating calm and again allowing them to order their world.

5. Therapy is a big part of helping your child with their self-esteem. Being able to talk through how they feel with a professional goes a long way in helping them understand who they are. Some schools systems will provide counseling in school with either the school psychologist or social worker. In fact at times because our children lack social skills, which can be a huge self-esteem killer, a lot of districts implement “Circle of Friends” to help our children with any problems associated with the social structure of their day to day existence. It is a positive and please insist upon its inclusion in their IEP or 504 program.

6. Let your children know that no matter what happens in life, that you will always have their backs. Many children take criticism very personal and feel that they are letting their families and especially their parents down when they get criticized. Try to use positive instruction and positive reinforcement of any lessons that need to be learned.

7. Create a reward system. Earning points for simply listening and sitting for a certain amount of time when they do their homework is a great way to start. Use a timer. It can start with as little time as 5 minutes and then ratchet itself up slowly. Use the points, gold stars, etc to earn something the child wants, like a new coloring book, stuffed animal, Pok√©mon card, manga or even a DVD. Don’t make it so hard that they will never get to the success point.

8. If they let you hug, kiss, high-five, fist bump or pat them on the back. I have found that that stray kiss or hug goes a long way in making the child feel loved, understood and appreciated.



Self-esteem is a very tricky part of raising your child. This society puts a lot of emphasis on self-esteem but makes it nearly impossible for a child to grow up with a healthy sense of self. It is a dance on a precipice that we constantly have to do for our children. We cannot shield them from the culture as a whole, but we can add or subtract from the culture that which makes our children feel that they are worth less than they truly are. In watching the movie about Temple Grandin there was a way that Dr. Grandin’s mother used to describe her child and I think it applies to all of our children. Our children are “different not less.” We just need to make sure that our children understand that and that they always will understand their own value.