By ensuring and honoring “Internal-External Congruence” with your child, you really help place her on a fast track to self-esteem and self-regulation.
What I mean by this kind of congruence is when we communicate and act in ways that accurately (congruently) reflect what it is we truly feel, sense, think, and want to do. It’s interesting to consider how often we actually do this. When we make a decision, are we sure it is our decision? That we are making it for ourselves and not for another? When we answer a question about how we ar feeling, are we expressing the truth? Yes, there are times when we need to use discernment and not disclose certain things, either to keep something private or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, etc. I’m referring to other unhealthy examples when a person’s feelings, thoughts, needs and desires are discounted, minimized, or ignored. (And as this relates to children – not when we are attempting to steer them away from bad habits or decisions.)
Inherent in this practice of Internal-External Congruence is the degree of self-respect with which we honor ourselves, or not. Are we robotically answering with words and actions we think someone will want to hear us say and do, thereby sweeping our own wants and needs under the rug? Someone who has done this since childhood may likely not be in touch with what he is feeling at all by the tme he reaches adolescence. How happy will this child be throughout life if this continues? What quality of relationships will he have if he remains passive and inattentive to his own feelings, thoughts, needs and desires?
Obviously this is a huge piece related to self-esteem and how we correctly foster it in raising our children. We very much want them to be skilled in asserting themselves in life, but they first have to know how it is they actually feel and what it is they actually want. We can be sure to not make those assumptions and related decisions for them (in the right contexts), and, we can help them get in touch with what’s going on inside of themselves.
A simple coin flip exercise I’m about to share will help your older preschool or school-age child get in touch with the subtleties of her emotions, wants, and thoughts, and also get her connected to her intuition – her sense of what she knows to be true for her – or not; her sense of what is right or wrong; of whether to trust or not trust; of whether to act or not act, etc. Therefore, congruence – speaking and acting in accordance to how one really feels, thinks, and senses – is greatly related to self-regulation. A child who knows and trusts how she feels, and then acts on this inner knowing, is respecting herself. She is validating herself. This is no small thing, as it sets the stage for further self-trust and leaps in self-confidence, self-respect, and self-competence – all vital skills for self-regulation.
When your child is unsure of how she feels about something – say, whether she should invite a classmate to her birthday party who has bullied her and some of her friends in the past but who also has shown appropriate social skills and kindness at times, pull out a coin. Have your child “assign” to “heads” the decision to invite the classmate to the birthday party, and “assign” to “tails” the decision to not invite the classmate to this party. Have your child flip the coin and when it lands, ask her to describe how she feels about the “decision” the coin has made for her. Does she feel relieved? Glad? Sorry? Confused?
There is no judgment in expressing the truth of what one feels and acting upon it, even if it does not seem like the “politically correct” response at the time. In these types of cases when we fear that others may view our decisions as socially awkward, rude, or unkind, there are graceful ways of handling it, and we get more comfortable doing this the more it happens – and I think it’s good when it happens.
In our example, your child may have any type of feeling and decision and it’s your job to honor them, keeping your feelings out of it. It might be that she’ll benefit from you helping her to come up with what to say to either explain why the classmate wasn’t invited, or for how to invite them to the party. If she happened to feel like she wants to give her classmate a chance, you might sit down and think of a “script” for her to use to talk with her classmate about the expectations she has for them at the party. An example might be, “I’d love for the whole group to get along and have fun, like the times when you’ve been kind to me and my friends. Though there have been times you haven’t been and I was really hurt. Let’s talk about how to to be sure everyone’s nice to each other and has a good time.” This added step increases self-regulation skills, too, because it maps out ideas and skills for thinking about non judgment, kindness, compassion, self-respect, putting oneself in another’s shoes, steps to building friendships, solving problems, and trying again.
Please note, that although it may seem odd to hear someone state what seems obvious, and to suggest such simple scripts to share with children, I’m afraid it’s actually because we’ve stopped paying attention to the “obvious” that we have so many children with challenging behaviors to begin with. For anyone who’s not used to these suggestions, please read and consider this with fresh eyes. Then try it, and see what happens, and write us with your stories!
The coin flip trick is a simple exercise which when used regularly can help your child gain insight into, and respect for her internal experiences. Your encouraging guidance for her to act on her level of “knowing” what feels right for her will greatly increase both her sense of safety with you, and her own personal empowerment. In time, she’ll internalize this process without the use of the coin, increasing her skill set for validating herself. She’ll also likely lead others to use the same process of self-validation.
I’ve worked with all ages, including preschoolers and find the language in our example works well with 4 and 5 year olds, and can easily be adapted and simplified with 2 and a half and three year olds. It’s also helpful to use age-appropriate toys for playing out scenarios and lessons. The best are those that the children really like which might be personified, like toy cars, dolls, and puppets. The idea is to get the concepts across in language they’ll understand. I don’t think we can underestimate how much even young babies and toddlers can understand conceptually, and especially through our attunement to them. It’s a learning curve and skill set for all of us to continually develop in sensing what works for each age group we are caring for (and of course age doesn’t necessarily denote typical cognitive or social-emotional congruence). The overarching goal is to make our responses and the activity be about how the child’s emotions matter, that we honor what they are feeling and intuiting, and that they should pay attention to what their emotions and intuition tell them. We practice nonverbal honoring by holding a child, validating them by being present with them, and not ‘shushing’ them when they cry or are angry, etc.
These steps build the way for the more developed cognitive strategies for increasing self-regulation we use as the kids grow up. As caregivers we are always paving the way nonverbally and verbally. It’s all happening all the time.
Note: this post was edited; it was originally published as “Congruence and Self-Esteem” on Oct. 9, 2009 on my previous blog.