A middle school girl I worked with finally found the courage to tell me her deepest fear. Her body was so tense, it was practically vibrating.
“What if I grow up to be ordinary?” she said.
The fear this child expressed—that she may not be that special—is one that I see often in my work as a therapist. Somehow this girl, and many other clients I’ve seen, equated self-worth with being impressive.
I frequently hear from parents that their kids struggle with low self-esteem. Their children might seem outwardly confident, but they are suffering because of their unrelenting preoccupation with judging themselves. Parents worry when they see their children crying over a less-than-perfect grade, fretting that something they said might seem weird, franticly avoiding any situation where they might not instantly excel, or viciously criticizing themselves when they fall short in some way.
Not only does lavish praise about how great they are not make kids with low self-esteem feel better about themselves, it can actually lead to even lower self-esteem over time and less willingness to take on difficult tasks.
These parents are picking up on the vulnerability of their children’s self-worth—what researcher Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues refer to as…