Is Low Self-Esteem Contagious?
A teary-eyed mom of an 8-year-old girl sat in my office, wringing her hands. It was a long year full of unforeseen obstacles. She tried to remain positive throughout the ups and downs. She tried to wear a brave face in front of her daughter. She tried to smile, laugh, and remain playful. But as the months wore on and the stress increased, she felt defeated. She felt like she couldn't get anything right. She felt very, very low. And she worried that her mood and low self-esteem might be the cause of the drastic change in her daughter's demeanor.
“She's not happy anymore,” she whispered. “She's lost her personality. What if it doesn't come back?”
Parenting can be a journey full of ups and downs. We all experience unexpected obstacles at times, and it isn't always easy to remain brave and positive when the hits just keep on coming.
The question is: Are mood and self-esteem contagious? Do our negative core beliefs become theirs?
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that while positive reframing from friends and loved ones can enhance self-esteem in people struggling with low self-esteem, consoling a friend with low self-esteem can be exhausting and can make those doing the consoling feel worse about themselves. This suggests that self-esteem can actually be contagious. The flip side, of course, is that positivity can also be contagious.
So what can parents do when low self-esteem and negative core beliefs have a trickle-down effect? You can start by taking care of you.
Parental emotional health is as important to the kids as it is to the parents. Parents are the lenses through which children catch a first glimpse of the larger world around them, and that glimpse can be very powerful.
Talk about emotions
While it makes good sense to attempt to protect children from adult stressors that are beyond their developmental level of processing, it's nearly impossible to hide in plain sight when you are struggling with your sense of self on a daily basis.
Talking about emotions in kid-friendly language helps children understand that all people struggle at times and that ups and downs are both normal and to be expected. It also opens the door to close communication and discussion of feelings and emotions as kids grow.
Label and verbalize your feelings with your kids. If you try to hide your emotions, you risk projecting those emotions to your kids. If you communicate with your kids, you can problem solve.
Talk about coping strategies
Low self-esteem can feel like a bottomless pit of negativity. Once you get stuck in the loop, it takes hard work and mindfulness to break the cycle. Kids feel helpless when they see their parents struggling in silence. They tend to internalize the negative emotions in the room and often engage in self-blame.
Breaking the cycle of negativity begins with identifying emotions and establishing adaptive coping strategies. Talk about what helps lift your own mood and sense of self and then discuss what might work for the kids. Create a family list of “self-esteem boosters” to hang on the wall. Revisit them when low self-esteem emerges.
Practice asking for help
Parenting can be all consuming at times, and this results in superhero parenting. While it might feel like you can handle just about anything as long as you keep pushing forward, suppressing feelings and emotions only leads to increased resentment. This can trigger that vicious cycle of negativity and low self-esteem once again.
Give yourself permission to be a little less perfect and a little less heroic, and learn to seek help from friends and family.
Asking for help isn't an admission of defeat. Asking for help is proof that you take your own emotional health seriously and that you understand the power of adaptive coping strategies. It also teaches your children a very valuable life lesson: United we thrive, divided we struggle.
Choose to thrive. Your family will be better for it.