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Helping Grandson with Low Self-Esteem

QUESTION: I am an assistant coach on my 13-year-old grandson's baseball team. I find that some of the players, especially my grandson, are excessively self- critical when they miss the ball, at bat or on the field. It seems to affect his self-esteem and ability to perform. I feel helpless, yet I want so much to make a difference. Is there anything I can do to help?

ANSWER: The regular course of puberty itself can be trying! Hormonal shifts and a rapidly changing body can bring self-doubt to any young man at the threshold of adolescence. But life stress -- particularly if related to divorce or other family problems -- can undermine a child's self-esteem at a more permanent level if it affects his performance. You are right to be concerned!

Your best approach would be to help him handle his failures in a more constructive fashion. Continued self-deprecation in response to poor performance can set a negative feedback loop in motion resulting in lowered self-esteem. Self-worth that swings wildly up and down, depending on your last catch or foul, can create a downward spiral and even encourage depression.

The good news is that, as an involved grandparent, you are in exactly the right place to make a big difference. Children respond to someone who believes in them. As a grandparent, you can provide emotional support and encouragement at a pivotal point in your grandson's life. Do not underestimate your power to nurture his growth by listening and encouraging him in key moments on the baseball field. You have a unique opportunity to teach self-appreciation and psychological skills that will not only help him through a difficult period, but will remain with him for a lifetime!

First, take this opportunity to educate your grandson about the mind-body connection in sports performance. Teach him that taking care of himself is mental as well as physical. The first step is to handle disappointment. Let him know that disappointment when he strikes out is inevitable and natural. But educate him to the fact that positive self-talk (such as "I am doing my best to learn, and I will have chance to practice to improve my game") rather than negative statements ("I am such an idiot. I will never learn this game") make a difference in performance.

Appeal to your grandchild's common sense, by clarifying that when he berates himself, he puts extra stress on his body which he must then recover from, instead of spending that same amount of energy improving his skill level. Clarify that he puts himself at a disadvantage when he adds insult to disappointment in times of failure.

Do not shy away from using drama to get your points across. For example: Role-play the "body" while he plays the role of the "mind." Ask him to berate you, and respond physically to his message, slumping your shoulders, looking down and disrupting your focus on the ball. Then ask him to say encouraging remarks, and reflect the recovery of your body standing tall and continuing to do its best. Be sure to change roles with him, so that he can feel the effect of these words on his own body's response.

Help your grandchild develop an "inner coach" that can help him through difficult times. Tell him you believe in him and want him to tell himself the things you would tell him. Be aware that your relationship serves as the role model for this internalization, and act the part! Be supportive and nurturing, especially when you know your grandson is particularly hard on himself. Refrain from ridicule. When criticizing performance, make positive suggestions, rather than condemnations. Model the positive attitude you want him to adopt.

Your role as a coach and grandparent can be an instrumental one. You enjoy a unique position for teaching life skills that reach far beyond the playing field. Do not underestimate your power to influence as a grandfather. Instead, use it wisely!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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