In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with people for almost twenty-five years. By far, the single
most central element, the one thing that pervades almost every
other issue is self-esteem. It touches everything–sex and
relationships, work problems, anxiety, depression, addictions;
you name it. This is Part III of a four-part series in which the
subject of self-esteem is explored, particularly in the context of
“visiting” divorced parents. This emotional and physical climate
challenges the natural development of self-esteem–it is hard to
parent children through this even if the family is intact!
The development of self-esteem is examined through the author’s
system and theory of self-esteem. There are four primary elements
of self-esteem. In my system, I call them “Powers” because when we
develop any one of them, we become more personally powerful.
The Four Powers of Self-Esteem are: Worth, Competence, Ego-Strength
and Self-Acceptance. Please read Parts I and II before
reading this article.
The Second Power of Self-Esteem is Competence. This refers to
actual abilities. It is based upon Worth, which is the First Power,
and refines what a child can or cannot do. Children frequently flee
to developing competence in particular areas to compensate feelings of
inferiority, largely exacerbated or even created by the offshoots of
warring parents’ communications. In short, if the child feels bad
at a self-esteem level (from chronic negative introjects), he or she
will strive to offset the effect by honing natural abilities.
This is when kids start noticing they can run faster than others,
spell better, are prettier or get better grades on tests. This is
when kids notice they are more popular or just have better social skills
evinced by more friends or more invitations to birthday parties.
Usually, kids are motivated to develop these abilities anyway, but in
divorced situations, which in these articles are presumed to cause
circumstances that are more contentious and experiences, the drive to
manifest one’s natural skills is enhanced. It may be compensation,
but it is natural to seek out one’s abilities, and in these
circumstances, the payoffs are doubled. Not only does the child raise
his or her self-esteem in the natural ways, but also the reward is that
the good feelings that come by doing so mask the bad feelings inside.
This can happen at any age. Kids naturally do this in grade school
when surrounded by other competing kids. This drive is peaked by
academia because the feedback about kids’ performance is concentrated
and abundant in school. What better time to step up and show off.
What better way to feel better or at least distract attention from other,
less pleasant experiences at home?
Riding on the heels of the Second Power is the Third Power. This
is Ego-Strength, and is comprised to two elements. The first is
assertiveness. Assertiveness is the quality or ability to speak up
effectively about one’s thoughts and feelings. In another ebook
(“The Five Steps of Assertiveness”), I outline the steps to becoming
assertive, which are really quite simple and orderly; meaning, each
step follows the one preceding it. Kids have to learn to speak up and
to do so spontaneously. This is almost mandated at school, encouraged
and reinforced in class and on the playground.
However, parents do not always encourage assertiveness at home when
there is divorce or separation looming. The exceptional parent in this
circumstance does encourage the child to “air” his or her experiences.
This is hard enough for children to do in “normal” families, because their
self-esteems are not fully formed. Therefore, in learning to be assertive,
kids must endure a certain trial and error process. The point here is
that while assertiveness may be encouraged in school, at home it may be
avoided. Why? The number one reason to not be assertive is to avoid
conflict. Because kids and many adults confuse assertiveness with
aggressiveness, they reason that if they speak up it will cause conflict.
There are already too many fights in my home(s), so why start more?
Better to shut up. I often hear, “At school I might speak up but not at
The second element of the Third Power is “Thick Skinned-ness.”
This simply means the ability to take criticism, to not take negative
feedback so personally and to roll with the punches. It happens when
people decide they will act this way, but by default, many kids find
themselves possessing this ability after finding out they can do something
especially well. In other words, strength can be borrowed or transmuted
from one area and used in another, to thicken one’s armor in this case.
(We psychologists call this “bridging.”)
There is another set of experiences that create thick skinned-ness.
Just as soldiers de-sensitize and toughen up on the battlefield, so do
children fortify their defenses against parent wars at home. This is
the hard way to develop thick skinned-ness, but it is often what kids do
when they have no other escape. Again, we child psychologists see this
in normal families, particularly in families where there are lots of
siblings, or very assertive parents. In these cases, usually there is a
positive role model present who teaches the child to roll with the punches,
not just grit his or her teeth and endure. Usually there is more support
after the conflict. This is very necessary for children to process their
feelings, re-constitute their sense of self and bond with the supporting
parent or older sib. In divorcing families, this resource is more likely
to be diluted or even lacking until visitation rotates. The child may
learn to de-compensate by going to friends’ houses, or withdrawing, or
sometimes crying and becoming depressed and/or anxious. In the latter
case, this is the beginning of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness
is the term that means shutting down and just taking the punishment (enduring
stress in silence) because there is no support and no escape. If this
happens, the child is in very deep psychological trouble.