It’s Not Just Adults — Kids Struggle With Impostor Syndrome And Low Self-Esteem Too
By Heather M. Jones
PHOTO © spukkato/Getty Images
May 10, 2019
My 10-year-old son slinked into my room, crestfallen. I asked him what was wrong, and his shoulders sank lower. After some coaxing, he reluctantly relinquished his confession.
“I’m not a good person.”
I sat in stunned silence for a moment, trying to take in what he had just said. Had something happened? Had he committed a grievous act I was unaware of? My knee-jerk reaction was to assure him he was wrong.
He shook his head, and tears began to fall.
“Why would you think that?” I pressed him further.
“You say that I’m a good big brother, but I pushed my brother. I’m not a good brother.” His head fell, avoiding meeting my eyes.
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I began to put the pieces together. He had just been sent to his room after a heated interaction with his five-year-old brother. They had been playing, which had turned into arguing, and then gotten physical on both sides, as often happens with brothers who are learning how to handle conflict. I had punished his actions. He had applied it to his character.
What followed was a long discussion about good people making mistakes, and missteps not cancelling out who we are fundamentally as people. But the talk was perhaps more illuminating for me than it was for him. It rapidly became clear my son was suffering from a phenomenon I know well — impostor syndrome.
Had I done something to make my son feel this way?
In its simplest terms, impostor syndrome is a form of low self-esteem in which people discredit or downplay their accomplishments. They may feel that they are faking their way through or that their success is due to external forces like good luck, and it can often be difficult to take a compliment or feel like they have truly earned the accolades they receive.
This concept is not new to me. I have had many brushes with impostor syndrome in my adult life — I just never suspected it could show up in my children.
Psychologist Nadene Van Der Linden offered some things to look for that might signal a child has poor self-esteem. “Some of the ways include what I would call negative self-talk and would be more commonly known as put-downs — 'I'm stupid,' 'I'm dumb,' 'I'm a loser.' Other signs can be feeling unsure of themselves, which can show up by not wanting to try new things or being very reluctant to engage with new people including children. Even when they have done well, a child with low self-esteem will doubt themselves and their worth.”
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I recognized this self-talk from my own childhood, and it breaks my heart to know my own child is experiencing that heartbreak. Had I done something to make my son feel this way? I never put him down as a person or give him negative labels, but had I caused this?
Van Der Linden put my mind at ease. “Although a loving and accepting home is important for healthy self-esteem development, it’s important to note that kids can vary on how they develop self-esteem based on differences in temperament and personality. It is possible to be raised by loving and caring parents who accept you and have self-doubt.”
I had punished [my son's] actions. He had applied it to his character.
That isn’t to say parents don’t play a large role in their children’s self-esteem development. “It’s important to remember as a parent that you can help your child develop self-esteem over time,” adds Van Der Linden. “Harsh criticism from parents and a focus on achievement can contribute to the development of poor self-esteem. Frequent messages such as 'You are silly/stupid/lazy/bad' can be internalized by a child as true. Abuse of all kinds has the net result of lowering self-worth.”
We can also create the feelings of impostor syndrome by over-praising our children. Dr. Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Standford University, says giving children concrete labels such as “smart” gives little wiggle room. If they face a situation in which they don’t succeed, they may question that label, and wonder if they really are smart. This lays the foundation for impostor syndrome.
So how can we help foster healthy self-esteem? Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen suggests praising effort instead of achievement. “I can tell you worked hard on that” instead of “You’re a great builder.”
Van Der Linden makes the same suggestion, adding a focus on effort "also better helps children manage adversity and persist when praise is not immediately forthcoming.”
Armed with this new knowledge, I have stopped making black and white comments about my son’s character and started being more specific. Instead of, “You’re a good big brother,” I am trying, “It was so kind of you to help your brother with that task.” I’m recognizing his efforts more and encouraging him to do the same. I’m helping him adopt more positive self-talk and reframing his failures as opportunities to learn.
I know self-doubt is somewhat unavoidable, but it is encouraging to know there are things we can work on together to help him learn to own his accomplishments and fight off that impostor syndrome. He’s an amazing kid and I hope that, in time, he learns to really believe it.
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