I recently solicited some friends on ideas for blog posts/articles. One friend suggested writing about helping children with special needs build and maintain a good sense of self-esteem.
So off I went to research self-esteem and children with special needs. I found a treasure trove of wonderful articles and eventually decided to focus my post around Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the article "The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" by Norman Kunc.*
As you can see from the diagram above, Maslow positioned that self-esteem is reliant upon a sense of belonging. Norman Kunc, in his article mentioned above, explained, "Without a social context in which to validate a person's perceived worth, self-worth is not internalized. The context can vary from small and concrete, as with babies, to universal and abstract, as with artists."*
So a baby feels belonging by being loved and cared for by his or her family. The baby is treated as a valuable member of the family. A child belongs to a family as well as a group of friends, a team, a class, and others which provide a sense of community to that child. Adults belong to families, friends, neighborhoods, work groups, associations, etc. It is through a secure sense of belonging that humans feel recognized, respected, and valued as members of that community. These feelings are internalized as healthy self-esteem.
However, as Norman Kunc points out, our communities must be accepting of diversity and find value beyond the currently narrow definitions of achievement, success, appearance, and other socially driven categories: “Yet in our society, we draw narrow parameters around what is valued and how one makes a contribution….Instead, we [need to] search for and nourish the gifts that are inherent in all people.”*
So, how does this relate to nurturing and helping to maintain healthy self-esteem in children with special needs?
Children with special needs often run into difficulty with self-esteem when they begin to realize that they are different from their peers. Sometimes this comes in the form of bullying whereby the child is told he or she essentially does not belong to the group and is not wanted. Sometimes this comes from the child him or herself identifying how different he or she is, and the child starts to isolate him or herself from the group out of fear of not belonging. Both of these scenarios create the feeling of unworthiness and thus hinder self-esteem.
Another thing that happens to children with special needs is when the group to which the child belongs values only certain traits in its members. This might be academic achievement in school, athletic achievement in a sport, or appearance in a social group. The child who cannot achieve at the level required for these groups begins to not feel valued as a member of the group. This leads to doubts of self-worth.
These problems of being different and not being able to meet the goals defined as necessary to be a member of the group are how our current society fails in providing a sense of authentic belonging to all people. To change this dynamic, society needs to encourage diversity and honor all the contributions people can make.
However, this post is not about changing society. This post is about helping children today, in this society, maintain self-esteem. So, if a sense of belonging and providing value to community is the building block upon which self-esteem sits, it only makes sense that we need to provide this for our children with special needs.
So here are a dozen suggestions generated by myself and the ideas I garnered from my internet research:
- Make sure you have a home life that values all members and all contributions without placing a hierarchy of value;
- Provide a way for your child to contribute to the family in a way your child feels is valuable;
- Find an activity or a group that your child can feel a welcome member of:
- A sport your child is good at;
- Chess club, book club, a role-playing game club, or any other activity your child enjoys;
- Drama, an art class, an environmental clean-up crew, etc.;
- This can be done without having a specific group of people as in these groups one can be a member simply by doing art, writing, helping, etc.;
- You as the parent can be the one expressing how valuable the child’s art, writing, helping, etc. is to you as a family member, as a person who likes art, writing, etc., and as a member of the greater society;
This is a dynamic list and I welcome all suggestions to add to it. Please post any you have in the comments as I would love to read them. I hope you find some of them helpful. :)
*Kunc, Norman.”The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Broad Reach Training and Resources <www.normemma.com/articles/armaslow.htm>