Many children who come into care suffer with incredibly low self-esteem and this is usually something which they will have to battle throughout their lives.
There are many reasons why this could be true, but one thing that will be true for the majority of fostered or adopted children is that they will have been let down at some point by the people who are meant to keep them safe. This may be their birth parents leaving them alone at home to cope by themselves, or locking them in a room with no toys to play with, or even abusing them in one way or another. Conversely it could be a failure of social care where the children are moved from foster home to foster home, finding no stability after having been removed from their birth family. A recent study of 3000 children in care found that 75% of them have had more than one foster placement move – I read this but I can’t find a link to the actual study other than behind a pay wall for The Times newspaper here, so hopefully it is true (for the purposes of my point at least). Regardless, the Children’s Commissioner seems to be interested in this type of statistic and what can be done to improve it.
Where to place the blame of this is irrelevant to a child until they are much older; perhaps all they see is that they are not wanted, or they are the cause of their own difficulties, when they are probably the only person not to blame. It is certainly easy to understand where the low self-esteem may come from.
When a child suffers with low self-esteem it can exhibit itself in a few ways; firstly over compliance. They do as they’re told. A parent’s dream? Maybe in normal circumstances, but not for us. Over compliance can result in being easily lead, not so much a problem when they’re young but if that continues into teenage years then a single bad egg can lead them astray into dangerous territory.
Secondly, low self-esteem can lead to bullying, not just being bullied, but bullying too, as in make others feel low to make yourself feel higher. I don’t want to raise my child to be a bully or to accept being bullied.
Thirdly, something that I find very scary: Self-harming.
Our eldest child came to us at a very key time with regards to self-esteem. The Terrible Two phase. It is only now that our youngest child has reached that point that I realise that he didn’t really go through “terrible twos”, not in the conventional sense anyway. We had been warned that he was a very compliant boy and that he had very low self-esteem.
I have lost track of the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “I can’t do it!” about simple tasks that a 2 or 3 year-old should be able to do easily enough. So, we have to build him up, show him he can do those simple tasks and over-congratulate when he does.
This boy loves songs and singing, so I made up a song about him and his brother and sung it to him. It was ad-libbed so don’t ask me for the words or the tune I sang it to, I can’t remember. He was amazed that songs could just be made up and be about him. I told him he could do it too if he wanted to… “No I can’t”. I encouraged him to sing about what was happening now – he was having a bath at the time – and started him off with a line or two. He sung a few words then seemed to lose interest.
Recently, again whilst having a bath, he did it again, all on his own. He started singing about animals and describing them in song (granted the word ‘big’ came up a lot when he was singing about elephants, so I took the opportunity to suggest ‘long’ might be used for the trunk), and it just kept going. We had elephants, tigers, lions (who are very fierce and have pointy teeth don’t you know?), snakes and whales. Then he stopped with the phrase “and those are all the words”. He showed incredible confidence when he was singing and as out-of-tune as it was (especially when his tone-deaf younger brother joined in in disharmony), it made me very proud.
I know he still has self-esteem issues, we are parents who are actually pleased when we get some attitude back from our 3 year old when told to do something. As frustrating as it can be when your child won’t do what you tell them to do, it is far more reassuring than having a child that rolls over and does anything you say or more worryingly what anyone else says without argument.
Where some parents spend their time trying to teach their children how to harness their monster within, how to regulate their emotions and frustrations, we have had to help ours find his in the first place and let it out. So, rather than the child that ‘zoned out’ whenever something difficult happened that he didn’t like, he is now allowing us to see all of his monster within.
He has found his monster and, for now at least, we want it to grow.