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We have a college age student who is having self-esteem issues that he's had since grade school. Although he is surrounded by a large and loving family, he doesn't feel loved because his low self esteem stops him from believing that he deserves it. Although he is smart, he doesn't do well in school simply because he doesn't try. This creates the catch-22 that he isn't smart enough to do anything well which is also not true. At this point, we don't know how to help him help himself. Do you have any suggestions?


Jim Taylor, Ph.D. Replied: Low self-esteem is epidemic among young people in our society today and a frequent issue in my practice (with both teens and adults). It grew out of a mistaken understanding of what self-esteem is and how it develops. Some years back, many child-development experts told parents that the way to build self-esteem is to ensure that children always feel good about themselves (by loving, supporting, reinforcing, and rewarding them, no matter what they do) and never feel bad about themselves (by protecting them from failure and, when they do fail, not requiring them to take responsibility for those failures). This had the exact opposite effect because it didn't provide young people with two essential ingredients for real self-esteem: a sense of competence ("my actions matter") and a sense of responsibility ("whether I succeed or fail, I am accountable and I can change it if I want"). The fact that you have a "loving family" suggests that perhaps you fell into the same trap. It might also be that some of your love was dependent on his achievements (the implicit message being "if you perform up to our expectations we will love you, if you don't, we won't"). Though rarely intentional, this is a message that many young people get from their parents (and popular culture). His lack of effort, which reinforces my interpretation of your source of your son's low self-esteem, is a form of self-defeating behavior that protects his self-esteem by, paradoxically, ensuring failure, but providing him with an excuse ("I got a D, but if I had tried hard, I would have gotten an A, so you still have to love me"). Now, the challenge is how to raise his self-esteem. As with many questions on this web site, I'm being asked to give a five-minute answer to a three-hour question. But I'll take my shot. Let me start off by saying that there are no quick fixes here; it is an ongoing process of instilling a sense of competence and responsibility. First, he must recognize that he has a problem and express his determination to change. Second, he should understand the concept of self-esteem, how and why his self-esteem is low, and how it can be developed. Third, he must be willing to take small, then increasingly bigger, risks that threaten his self-esteem (e.g., trying hard on a school project or studying for an exam), so he can learn firsthand that he is competent. Fourth, when he does "fail," he must see that his family and friends still love him. Ultimately, he has to learn on his own that he is capable of succeeding (if he tries) and, if he fails, he is still a good person worthy of love and respect from others (and himself). The best way to evoke this sort of change is to find a good psychotherapist who can help him explore all of the issues above and give him strategies to foster change.
Posted On 2008-01-15 17:38:17
Ellen Gibran-Hesse Replied: If he has gotten to the college age, the time has come to stop setting standards for him. Some people are more sensitive to criticism than others and if you have seen this since grade school you need to change your approach. Parents don't understand that their well meaning admonitions to do better sends a strong message that their child is not all right. It is possible that he has taken this as your message for a decade now. Maybe he doesn't do well in school because quite frankly, it is boring and not his thing. There is nothing wrong with that. Somehow we as parents let our own anxieties over grades as a measure of success shadow the incredible possibilities that exist in our talented students. Doing well in college or high school is no measure of success in the outside world. Instead of admonitions, focus on what he is learning from his experiences. Several of my sons are just not interested in college. One tried it and it didn't work at this time in his life so he is now in management in retail at age 23. Another plans to finish his degree and is working part time and moving up in sales. School isn't for them nor is it for most students. Helping him to find a field to work in where he enjoys it and can gain self esteem will do wonders. I strongly suggest no more focus or comments on grades and more positive comments on what he does well. Also, look seriously at whether or not he needs to be in college. Only half of all students entering college graduate from college and half of those return home to live with mom and dad. Have a respectful talk about whether he needs to work for a while or go to a college that trains and places its students in a profession. Many of these provide an associates degree and perhaps down the line, your son will return to the four year college when it means more. It is time to for him to shine and the one path fits all doesn't fit most let alone all. Be inventive and find joy in helping him find a career!
Posted On 2008-01-13 19:30:35
Amy Sherman Replied: Self-esteem is something you can't make somebody have. It comes from within and is developed from early childhood. I suggest you remind your son of all his past successes - ie: awards, recognitions, milestones, certificates, compliments etc. - since he was little, and show him that he has been successful, can do well and people noticed. How can you son reach his true potential? Explain to him that the difference between "try" and "triumph" is a little "umph". Therefore, he has to nudge himself a little more and he will find the extra effort will pay off with higher grades, more acknowledgment and greater feelings of pride with himself.
Posted On 2008-01-13 18:33:34
James Crist Replied: I would encourage him to seek counseling from his college counseling services. Persistent low self-esteem can be symptomatic of depression. This may explain his inability to let the love from his family register with him as it doesn't FEEL genuine. Given the risks of suicide that can go along with depression, I would also suggest contacting the counseling center staff at his school. If he is still living at home, assist him with making an appointment with the counselor. In the meantime, continue to let him know how much you love him and how much he means to you--and show it by spending time with him and staying in close touch with him. Check out Mental Health America for more information on depression--there is a section on depression in college students.
Posted On 2008-01-13 16:21:03
Annie Fox, M. Ed. Replied: You son is smart but doesn't do well in school "simply because he doesn't try." That may well be how it looks to you, but in order for you to encourage him to get the help he needs, I think you might have more success if you expanded your take on the situation. Clearly there is something going on here. You allude to it when you say he's been having "self-esteem issues ... since grade school." So it's more than "simply" his not trying. I'm wondering what feedback you've received from teachers over the years. I'm wondering what professional input you've gotten from school counselors, etc. I'm also wondering if your son, who is now an adult, views himself as someone with "self-esteem' issues. If he does, then it would be his choice (with your encouragement, of course) to seek out counseling on campus. Other than that, I might suggest that you back off and let him decide what path he wants to take. If his studies don't inspire him, he could talk to an advisor about changes majors. If his not inspired by college at all at this point, maybe he should consider taking time off to work and pursue some interests that will light a fire within him. Again, he could seek counseling to help him discover what those interests might be. Bottom line, the roots of low self-esteem can be very deep and talking with a counselor/therapist might be just what he needs, assuming, that he sees his problem in the same light that you do AND that he is ready to make some changes. I hope this helps. In friendship, Annie
Posted On 2008-01-13 15:11:04
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