When I transferred to a suburban elementary school from an inner-city public school for 5th grade, I did not get the warmest welcome. As an immigrant kid woefully unaware of American fashion, I did not get the memo that my floral leggings and T-shirt were not "cool." When I walked out to recess on the first day of school, I was clued in with a snide comment: "Haven't you heard of 'The Gap'?" No, alas, at the time I had not.
In Part 1, we looked at what self-esteem is and what we might do to bolster it for young children in a way that is grounded in reality. In this post, we'll take a look at building resilience in the face of criticism, particularly from peers—how to bounce back when self-esteem takes a hit.
Dealing with Criticism
It's rare to go through childhood unscathed by criticism from peers. Learning to handle criticism in a way that doesn't dent one’s overall self-esteem takes emotional awareness and self-reflection skills. The following strategies, which leverage these skills, are heavily based on psychologist Christine Neff's work on self-compassion. Neff makes a particularly strong case for self-compassion as a more viable bridge to self-esteem than “puffing ourselves up” in her TEDx talk. She argues that using comparison as a source of self-esteem is a losing battle; we don’t control what people around us do or think. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is always available to us as a source of connection to our goodness. It only requires our own empathy and self-reflection—something that’s always under our control. When a child feels compared unfavorably in the eyes of his peers, teaching the skills around self-compassion can hence bring longer-lasting comfort than a pep talk. I broke down these skills into four components:
Compassion with shared humanity
Division of responsibility
If your child confides to you that they felt hurt by someone’s criticism, the first question you might want to ask your child is: Do you think the criticism was true? If they don't believe their critic (or are not sure), then you can help shift your child's attention to the fact that this is just ONE appraisal of their value, and they have other (much better) appraisals to choose from. The person exhibiting unkind behavior is undervaluing your child, and it is the receiver's choice to accept that particular low offer on their self-worth. Instead, they can choose to believe the people who value them higher. If they are able to see criticism they received as not credible, it can make it easier for them to move past it. The criticism can be taken in the same vein as if someone accused them of something quite absurd, like secretly being a ninja. If your child feels comfortable with seeing the criticism as absurd, they could feel more comfortable with dismissing unflattering comments and then walking away.
If, however, they do feel that there is some grain of truth in the criticism they received, then there is more processing to do. Let's take a case of fat-shaming towards a child who happens to be overweight. The child might say: well, it's true, I am overweight.
When criticism hits close to home, it's really difficult to be objective about one’s own value when feelings of shame, guilt, and fear of rejection are on high alert. It can be tempting at this point to tell a child about their “other” wonderful qualities, cheer them up, put down the critics, and scramble for other ways to vigorously scrub these feelings away. These tactics never work—suppressing these feelings just pushes them into deeper cracks in our psyche, fueling future defensiveness, anxiety, anger, and resentment. Shame, guilt, and fear of rejection need to first surface and then dissolve slowly with the mild cleanse of compassion.
So, first we ask: How did hearing that make you feel? Then listen. If the answer is vague or one of denial, ask: Where do you sense the feelings in your body? Is there a pit at the bottom of your stomach? A heaviness on your chest? What's behind that? What is that sensation trying to say? Most of the time the answers to these questions will get at the core emotion.
Compassion with Common Humanity
Compassion means affirming the emotions with a deep sense of understanding and non-judgment. It means restating what you heard in a kind, caring tone: "When they made fun of you for being overweight, you felt your stomach tighten up with fear, shame, and loneliness and it really hurt."
A deeper layer of compassion is what Neff calls “common humanity.” The fact that we are human means that every feeling we ever experience, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, is a feeling another person has had at some point in their lifetime. When we view our encounter with shame and loneliness through the lens of common human humanity, those feelings start to loosen their grip on us by providing a constructive perspective towards those feelings.
When we see ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity, we can confuse our emotions with our identity. For example, if you feel rejected you might conclude that it's because you, as a whole, are a person who is somehow unacceptable. The purpose of feeling shame, guilt, and isolation are not to globally define us as lonely or unacceptable. Their purpose is to point out that we are currently in a state of disconnection. Humans are tribal creatures—we don't do well in isolation. This is why we have an alarm system to give us a warning when we're in danger of being disconnected from our social group.
Seeing our feelings through the lens of common humanity means that these emotions are not about who you are; they are there to let you know that you're disconnected from the people you would prefer to feel connected to. It's just a signal. Let your child know of times you felt shame and isolation. Ask them to recall times when close friends and family confided to them that they felt guilt or shame. This is common humanity—none of us escape feeling shame and loneliness because these feelings are there for a reason.
Division of Responsibility
This is where we can get back to the work of separating out what the critics believe and what the child believes. Ask if they would expect to criticize another child in the same position, and why or why not. Would a friend of theirs criticize them for the same thing? Then ask the question: Why do you think this person was driven to criticize you?
It's tempting to jump to the conclusion that we are criticized simply because we look a certain way or because of a mistake we made. This is not exactly the case. People typically criticize to increase their social standing and to distance themselves from something they are afraid would make them socially unacceptable. The exact scapegoat used for the criticism (looks, weight, etc.) is irrelevant. For example, if you criticize someone for being overweight, you are trying to increase your social standing by claiming moral superiority to the other person. It's a bid for social standing by aggressively claiming more social value for ourselves. We’re declaring the other person to hold less virtue (thereby implying that, at least by comparison, we hold more social value than the other person). You might also be worried about your own weight, and criticizing someone else for their weight allows you to discharge those fears onto someone else, and in a weird way absolve yourself of those fears for a short period of time. The two strategies can often combine. A statement like: "At least I'm not as fat as you!" would allow one to feel socially superior and alleviate fear of being socially unacceptable all in one go.
If you can help your child understand the true reasons behind the criticism, they can then find the edge where the other person's criticism ends and their own viewpoint begins. At this point, you can ask: "How do you feel about your weight?" "Does it ever stop you from doing things you want to do?" From there, the child can decide, after some discussion, if the issue actually bothers them enough to do something about. Not because they were criticized by someone else, but because the criticism might have brought to light something they actually cared about but perhaps did not want to admit to themselves. If the child is fine with their weight, they can feel more confident that there is nothing to defend and dismiss the criticism in the future with more confidence. If there is something they want to change, they can take responsibility for developing healthier habits for their own sake.
We can clarify: "What is under your control here? What is your responsibility? What is under your critic's control? What is the critic's responsibility?" There is now a clear separation of responsibility between the child and their critic—between the destructive parts of someone else's criticism and confident acceptance of one's own reality (e.g. this is what I want to do about my weight, and here are destructive attitudes towards my weight that I will no longer accept.) Future criticisms can be met with an inner mindset of: "I already know what I need to change and I don't accept being degraded for my appearance."
To be sure, this process might not eradicate "feeling bad" in face of criticism. Feelings of guilt and shame will continue to serve as necessary guides when your child feels disconnected from their peers. Now, however, they can navigate their way out of self-loathing, towards an awareness that their peers are making the choice to disconnect, and towards a connection with their inner beliefs, emotions, and humanity.
Postscript: This framework can be extended towards dealing with critical feedback, as well as self-criticism, for for both children and adults.
Final note: When we think about criticism in childhood, bullying often comes to mind. Bullying extends beyond criticism, though—it has to do with establishing power over a peer by systematically targeting a specific person over and over. It’s an ongoing, abusive relationship between peers that can also include physical aggression and verbal threats. While the suggestions in this article might help with mild cases of bullying, significant adult intervention is often necessary to break more serious cycles of physical and psychological abuse.