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The Effects of Negative Reinforcements on Self-Esteem

by Jaime Vargas-Benitez

Negative reinforcement can have serious effects on a child's self-esteem. KidsHealth.org defines self-esteem as feeling capable while also feeling loved. For children to feel capable and loved, parents have to allow them to try -- and fail -- without negative responses. Children internalize these negative reinforcements and begin to feel inept at something before they even try. Influencing children through negativity brings about fear, and withdrawal, instead of instilling a sense of self and a willingness to try, regardless of potential failure. When children experience positive reinforcement, they feel good about themselves. They are more willing to try new things, because even if they fail, they do not lose their sense of self. Positive reinforcement teaches children to accept themselves, regardless of success or failure.

Encouragement to Build Self-Esteem

AskDrSears.com recommends showing a positive attitude to children. The site says children mimic what they see. Therefore, when their parents are happy and loving towards them, they are more likely to develop the same traits. For instance, when a child completes a chore like cleaning his room without prompting, the positive-reinforcement parent will respond with something like, "I am so proud of you for taking care of your belongings. That shows great maturity, and you should be very proud of yourself." In contrast, if a child receives negative reinforcement when he falters, he will turn that negativity inward. Using the room-cleaning example, when a parent says to the child, "Why can't you just keep this room clean? I am tired of seeing your stuff all over, and I am aggravated at having to keep reminding you to clean" the child internalizes this dialogue. He will begin to see himself as a burden and aggravation to his parents. AskDrSears.com recommends that parents focus on children’s positive behaviors and to recognizing the strong points in their children. Using negativity in parenting will encourage negative feelings in the parents’ children.

Teenagers and Self-Esteem

Teenagers are temperamental. In a HealthyChildren.org article entitled, "Ways to Build Your Teenagers' Self-Esteem," HealthyChildren.org gives tips to parents on helping teens see their self-worth. It recommends an open dialogue with teens, in which teens feel free to speak their mind. An example of this can be when a teenage daughter talks to her mother about a boy not liking her. A mother asks her daughter what is wrong after she sees the girl acting sullen. The teen replies, "Bobby does not like me -- he likes Ann. I feel rejected and ugly." The mother responds positively by professing to her daughter how pretty and smart she is, and if Bobby cannot see her good qualities, then it is his loss. She reassures her daughter that a boy will come along when the time is right. This positive conversation with the teen helps parent and teen feel heard and respected, and the teen walks away with greater self-esteem. If the mother had responded, "Oh just get over it and stop being so emotional. You are too young for boys anyway, so forget about it," then the teen girl would have walked away feeling rejected by the boy and by her mother. HealthyChildren.org warns that negative reinforcement can damage the fragile teen self-image, causing them to shut down emotionally.

Negativity Breeds Negativity

Dr. Ira Chasnoff is a leading researcher among child development specialists. He says positive reinforcement is the most effective discipline. In his opinion, only positive reinforcement works long term because children with negative influences will grow up negative themselves, says Dr. Chasnoff in his article, "Catch 'Em Being Good," in Psychology Today. People repeatedly exposed to negative experiences adopt the same negative attitude. He says children do not respond to negative reinforcement because they learned a lesson -- but because their parents have made them feel poorly about themselves. This process will eventually lead to low self-esteem.

Internalizing Negative Reinforcement

Psychologist Eugene Sagan published an article called, The Pathological Critic." In the article, he says negative reinforcement leads to a negative internal dialogue. For example, a child fails a test. The teacher angrily demands a better grade next time. The child's parents chastise him and talk about how disappointed they are with his performance. The child walks away with an inner dialogue of disappointment and rejection. He is not motivated to do well next time; rather, he now dreads test-taking and has issues throughout school. When children meet failure with negativity, they will internalize the negative dialogue and beat themselves up emotionally. Sagan says people can become afraid of trying new things for fear of the negative outcome if they fail. Instead of feeling loved, nurtured, and accepted, negative reinforcement leads to fear, avoidance, and lack of communication. If the same test-failing child had been met with a teacher who offered to help if he needed tutoring, and parents who encouraged him that it was only one test, and that they would help him study next time, he would be encouraged, and he would know he could have help for the next test.

About the Author

Jaime Vargas-Benitez has been a parenting writer since 2010. She has worked in the child wellness field in various roles for over 20 years. Along with the experiences of raising her own kids, she has been privileged enough to participate in the raising of hundreds of other children as well.

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