A recent Harvard Medical School study found that nearly 8% of the adolescents experience bouts of extreme anger sufficient to be diagnosed as “intermittent explosive disorder” – a form of mental illness. The number looks not higher. It has been witnessed that there is a growing addiction on the part of the majority of people to three primary emotions: anger, sadness, and fear. Although all people display all three of these emotions at times during upsetting situations, it is observed that adolescent males are addicted most to anger. Early on in life, typically before the age of 6, each child experiences some significant event that causes him or her to doubt themselves and their self-worth. Someone says or does something that has the child believe that he or she is flawed, unlovable, not worthy and imperfect.
This initial stressful incident is the first real realization that the child is not perfect and fails to measure up to society’s standards in some important way. The initial upset can be one of two types. The first assault could be an unkind word from a peer or authority figure, a spanking, an insult, an argument, a bullying or name calling episode. It could occur as a direct result of something the child said or did that provoked an attack on his or her sense of worthiness or ability to fit in.
The second type of self-esteem diminishing episode can be as a result of the child misinterpreting someone’s words or actions to mean that the child is flawed, unlovable, or defective in some way. In such a case, no insult or demeaning connotation was intended. The facts were that someone said or did something. The child mistakenly made up that there was something wrong with him or her as a result of what was said or done. And…that interpretation “made” the child angry (or sad or afraid, to a lesser extent).
From that point onward, the child begins to scan for events, people, and interpretations that evoke that same familiar response of anger. The more he or she becomes conditioned to “getting mad” the easier it becomes to lose control and feed that addiction to anger. Over the course of years, and then decades, the child grows into an adult who has conditioned himself to find countless reasons to react to the world in anger.
(The same is true for those who suppress their anger and instead become addicted to either sadness or fear and thus attract people and events into their lives that “cause” them to become sad or afraid.)
Daily, there are hundreds of opportunities for a child to misinterpret life in a way that gives him his “fix” of anger, eventually compounding to tarnish his self-image over the long term as the anger ruins relationships and kills personal effectiveness.
The process of diminishing self-esteem fueled by an emotional addiction to the resulting predominant mood of anger (or sadness or fear) that began early in life continues throughout life as the person becomes accustomed to scan for additional situations that may serve as mere evidence to reinforce this initial thought of being flawed. During such potentially upsetting events, the child reinforces this idea of unworthiness by further interpreting life events to prove the fact that she is defective or inadequate in some significant way. After years of accumulating such evidence, his self-image deteriorates further with every episode. Before long, there is no doubt in his mind that there is something wrong with them. After all, he has created a self-fulfilling prophesy to cement this belief firmly in his self-perception.
Parents can do much to support their children to feel good about themselves and to champion their child’s self-image. They can continually reinforce the concept that no one is perfect and all one can do is their best. They can be a source of unconditional love, supporting the child at every opportunity and encouraging them to see themselves as worthy of affection, abundance, love, and trust. They can make sure that the child understands that they, as parents, might not always agree with the child’s behavior. However, they can continually reinforce that the child is NOT their behavior. Everyone makes mistakes and life is a process of learning and growing. No matter what mistakes the child makes, he or she must realize that they are always inherently good, lovable, and worthy.
Parents can continually reinforce that they love their children unconditionally. Children need to realize that even when they make mistakes and parents do not approve of their behavior, it does not affect their love for them or their sense of value. Children will benefit from knowing that they are loved for who they are, not just what they do.
Parents can speak respectfully to their children, reassuring them of their competence, capability, and inherent value. They can empower them to make their own choices whenever possible, fostering their belief in their own ability to make wise decisions and learn from any mistakes. They can give them responsibilities that nurture their self-confidence and belief in their abilities. Whether that looks like making their bed, helping with household chores, or selecting their favorite juice at the grocery store, each can serve as an opportunity for the child to grow in self-confidence.
Parents can consistently acknowledge their children for worthwhile qualities they see in them. They can get into the habit of finding something good about them every day and pointing it out. Parents can support their children to see what might be missing for them to be more effective with other people or in accomplishing their goals. Rather than focusing on their weakness and faults, they can empower their strengths and communicate that everyone has unique talents and gifts that make them special. They can support children to identify their passions and pursue their special interests and develop their gifts.
Parents can teach their children to interpret life with empathy. They can support them to imagine what it is like in another person’s world so they can better understand why people do the things they do. They can support their children not to take the reactions of others personally. When children realize that no one else can make them angry, sad or afraid, only they themselves can, they learn not to be reactive and easily provoked by others’ issues. Parents can teach their children to forgive themselves for mistakes they make. They can teach them the value of cleaning up any mistakes by speaking and acting responsibly. They can also teach them to forgive others, knowing that they are doing the best they can based upon how they see the world. This does not mean that bad behavior is to be condoned. It means that it is important to understand why others do hurtful things at times and separate out that they do them because of their own perceptions, prejudices, and insecurities rather than interpreting that they do them TO us.
Parents can teach their children to have gratitude for their blessings in life. They can teach them that the world is an endless source of abundance for those who believe in themselves and their ability to attract good things. They can teach them to expect success, happiness, rich relationships, and abundance. They can also teach them to be playful out for what they want, committed to their goals with a vision of winning success without being attached to any result.
Many mistakenly confuse high self-esteem with ego. It is important to distinguish between fostering high self-esteem in children, as opposed to creating ego-maniacs obsessed with themselves at the expense of others. High overall self-esteem means being competent and capable of producing a result in every area of life. This includes being effective in relationships and in communication with others with an appreciation for what it is like in the world of other people. Those who care only about themselves with no concern for others do not possess high self-esteem.
It would serve parents to commit to themselves being perpetual students of personal development, knowing that their children will model their actions and their approach to life. It is with such an energy of respect, love, and acceptance that children will receive the tools they’ll need to manage their destructive moods, create empowering interpretations that support relationships, and grow into self-actualized, happy, and self-assured adults possessing high self-esteem.