One of the most basic needs of every child is the need for their parents’ approval. This is so important that it is at the basis of self-esteem, self-worth, and even their identity as they grow.
For many parents, our children are at the top of the list of important things in our lives, but not necessarily at the top of the list for how we spend our time. After all, we have bills to pay, houses to clean, doctor appointments, dinner, budgets, extracurricular activities—the list goes on and on.
When you are trying to work from home, plan healthy meals, keep the house clean, help with homework, and remember to let the dog out, it is very hard to take the time to compliment your child’s drawing or tell them “good job” on the Minecraft house they built.
Here’s the thing: your kids are an important part of your universe, but you are their entire universe for the first few years of their life. Your attention and words carry weight with your kids.
“Attention is like currency for kids,” said Justin Hacking, Clinical Supervisor at Idaho Youth Ranch and a Parent-Child Interaction Therapist. “Often times when kids are acting out, it is simply to get your attention. They will repeat the behavior that gets them the most attention.”
So how can we use this knowledge to encourage kids to behave in positive ways, build their self-esteem, and let them know that they are the most important part of your universe?
Complimenting your child well (we’ll get to this) and letting them know you think they are doing a good job, that they are good, and that you are proud of them will encourage them to continue repeating those behaviors and boost their self-esteem and resilience.
Why it matters: Self-esteem is essential to resilience because when your child knows that he/she matters and believes in their own value and worth, they are more likely to deal with stressful situations in life positively. Just as Adverse Childhood Experiences have a strong negative impact on lifelong physical, mental, and behavioral health, Positive Childhood Experiences have a measurable positive long-term impact on health.
So how can parents compliment their kids in ways that develop resilience?
Catch Them Being Good
Have you ever been in the kitchen and had the sudden realization that you haven’t heard your children fight, argue, or bicker in several minutes? There is nothing scarier for many parents than that ominous silence when children are playing in the other room. You rush in, only to find them playing peacefully.
This is a great opportunity to compliment your kids. Catching them being good is a great way to compliment your child’s behavior. Giving them attention for behaving in a way you want them to behave will encourage them to do so more often and naturally discourage them from bad behavior.
This tactic is as important for older children as it is with younger children.
According to Hacking, “No matter how old we get, we have a natural human need to gain our parents’ approval. With teenagers, they may not show it because they are trying to establish their own identities, but getting your approval is still very important.”
If your teen takes out the trash without being asked, compliment. If your teen sits down and does homework at the table, compliment.
“The more you compliment a specific behavior, the more likely they are to repeat it,” said Hacking.
Be Specific and Timely
When you are complimenting your child, be specific about what they did to earn your approval.
- “I am really impressed by how you’re handling online school. You really took the challenge and made the best of it.”
- “I am really proud of how you did in the game today. Even though your team was down, you stayed positive and gave it your all. That was really impressive.”
- “Thank you so much for helping with your sister’s math today. That really helped me a lot, and I am so impressed with how patient you were with her. You did a great job.”
Being specific in your compliments not only encourages the behaviors you want, it also validates the effort that your child made.
Inn addition, complimenting them at the moment they deserve it will give them a sense of accomplishment and anchor that behavior in their minds. It also ensures that you don’t forget about it later.
Remember when you were potty training your toddler? You didn’t wait an hour to tell them good job for using the potty. You clapped and hoorayed so they knew the action they just did was the action you wanted.
Show Some Admiration
Remember how we said your approval means everything to your child’s self-esteem and that self-esteem is crucial to building resilience? Nothing will say, “I approve of you and you are valuable,” like showing personal admiration for something your child did.
Imagine you are thirteen-years old and you just found out you won’t get to see your friends again until next year, when you start high school. You had so many plans. There was so much you wanted to do. On top of all that, you have to do school online. You are living the worst summer vacation ever because you’re trapped at home with a bunch of adults who are stressed out and cranky and get anxious every time they watch the news.
Now, imagine you have opened up to your mom or dad about this situation because you feel overwhelmed by it and somewhere in the conversation they say, “You know what? I am really impressed by how you handled that situation. The next time I’m dealing with something hard, I will try to do it like you did.”
Boom! Did my mom/dad just say they’ll try to handle their adult stuff like I did? Did I just set an example for them?
Showing some admiration for your child’s behavior and letting them know that you learned something from them (at any age) will put a new spring in their step and give them a boost of self-esteem they will probably always remember.
Meet Them Where They Are
This isn’t about literally meeting your kids somewhere to give them a compliment. This is about getting on their level and taking an interest in what is important to them.
This is the example where your child comes rushing to you, bursting with pride about the new house they built in Minecraft or the drawing they made.
To you, stopping to appreciate the four-story digital mansion in a virtual world you don’t care about can be difficult, but to your child it represents time, imagination, and intentionality.
Compliment those things.
“Wow! You put a lot of thought into this. I like the way you…”
Showing an interest in their interests tells your kids they are important and that you recognize what they take pride in as being valuable.
Why it matters: Think about it this way. You worked hard on a project at home or at work. You put in time and dedication and walked away feeling like it was a job well done, then you showed it to your boss/supervisor/spouse/friend and they minimized it or made you feel like it was unimportant. How would that make you feel? They just minimized hours of hard work, problem-solving, and creativity. When you tell your kid that their projects don’t matter (either directly or indirectly by ignoring them or suggesting you don’t care) you are creating those same feelings of hurt and disappointment in them.
Even if it’s something you don’t think is important, recognizing that it is important to them is essential.
Love Them for Themselves
One of the most important things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is compliment their personality.
Got a kid who is hilarious? Tell them how much you love their sense of humor. Got a kid who is studious? Tell them how impressed you are by their dedication to school. Got a kid who loves to read? Tell them you wish you read as much as they do.
The trick here is acknowledging those qualities that make them unique. This will help ease sibling rivalries, because you will appreciate each child for who they are, specifically (just be sure to be equal in your praise).
How would it have made you feel to hear your parent say, “You know what? I think you are wonderful just exactly the way you are. I would not change a thing about you, and I love you because you are you. I’m so glad that I get to be your parent.”
What a powerful way of reminding your child that he/she matters.
Tell Them You Like Them
Have you ever loved someone that you don’t like very much? There is a wide gulf between like and love. Generally, people think it is better to love than to like, but it is important to make a distinction.
Think about this:
Imagine telling your kid, “I wish I could be [insert age here] with you because I would have loved to have a friend like you. I really like you.”
Your kids (hopefully) hear that you love them all the time. Often, it is easy to for them to take that love as a given, because they are secure in it. Have you ever given your child a compliment, and they responded with, “You have to say that, you’re my parent.”
They know you love them. Telling your child you like them is different, and it builds a different part of their identity and self-esteem.
Telling them you like them gives them confidence in their social identity. It also signals to them that you, an adult, approve of them as a person.
Tell Them You Are Proud
This one is easy. It is a universal compliment that kids need to hear sincerely and often.
- “I am proud of the way you handled that situation.”
- “I am proud of your work ethic.”
- “I am proud of you!”
You shouldn’t assume that your child knows that you are proud. This is especially important with teenagers.
Many people assume that if you tell your child you are proud, they will take that as a cue to stop trying. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Telling them you are proud of their effort, accomplishments, ambition, and/or achievement will encourage them to push forward and keep it up.
Measure Success on Their Terms—Not Yours
When you were in school, did you ever have a subject that was just not for you? Maybe it was geometry, and you had to work hard just to get a C in the class, or in English you found essay-writing overwhelming and you were happy just to get something turned in?
Of course you did. Everyone does.
It is unhealthy to set the standard for success at perfection. The goal should be improvement.
This doesn’t mean you don’t push your kids to succeed. It is about redefining success as accomplishing a goal.
Maybe the goal is to get from a “C” to a “B” in that one class that is really hard. Maybe it is to spend 30 minutes a day reading.
Whatever it is, your job is to help your kids set achievable goals that push them to do a little better tomorrow than they do today. It is not to push your own fears, insecurities, or ambitions on to them.
After setting those goals, compliment their progress, dedication, and hard work. If your child was up studying for a big test and they got a C+ in a class they were struggling with, you give them a high-five and tell them what a good job they did. That is a huge success for that kid, and you will give them a boost of confidence to push themselves on the next one.
Compliment the Effort, Not the Appearance
You want to make a point of building your child up with sincere, genuine compliments specific to their accomplishments, goals, and personal characteristics because they need to know that you appreciate them for exactly who they are, which makes them feel safe and secure.
Empty compliments or compliments that don’t speak to their value as a person will create a false sense of ego or vanity. Complimenting their actions and character will reinforce those qualities and strengthen them. Don’t be afraid of complimenting those characteristics that make your child great. It is okay to tell your child they are beautiful, but don’t do so in a way that makes their appearance the entire basis for their self-esteem.
Remember that a goal as a parent is to help build people of good character, so balance your compliments based on things they do or did that reflect good character traits like honesty, integrity, hard work, and responsibility.
Compliment Them Often
Many parents are afraid of over-complimenting because they fear setting the bar too low. This is why making your compliments specific and personal is important. Think about your child’s self-esteem like a bank account. Every time you give them a compliment, you make a deposit of $1. Every time you give them a criticism, you make a withdrawal of $10.
As long as your compliments are specific, focused on good character traits, or acknowledge your child’s effort or good behavior, you can’t over compliment them.
Imagine that as your child grows and has experiences, each experience where they learned something, felt validated, felt supported, or felt safe and loved is a brick. They will use these bricks to build their self-worth into a wall that helps protect them from life’s difficulties. When life comes at them with obstacles or adversity, it will push on their wall like waves. Your compliments and approval are the mortar that will hold their walls together and keep them strong.
As they get older and those waves of difficulty get stronger, so too will their walls of resilience. Making sure your child feels safe in your love and approval will nurture resilience over a lifetime.