In a society that claims that we are “all created equal,” some folks have a hard time with differences, especially when others seem naturally better or better off than they are. There is a tendency to put down people who stand out in a crowd, achieve more, and are rewarded more-a desire to “bring the stars back down to earth” as it were. In Australia there is an expression for this practice: “cutting down the tall poppies.”
Children who are gifted and talented have to deal with poppy-cutters early in life. During middle school in particular, kids desperately want to feel ‘normal.’ They want to feel like they belong, and being different, smarter, or better in any way can feel to them like a disadvantage. Jeffrey did not want to boast about his high grades and he actually hid them from his friends. “It’s not cool to be really smart,” said Suzanna, “especially for girls.” She added, “but I don’t care,” with a tone of resignation about the anti-intellectual attitudes she had to battle every day.
It’s a sad situation when kids (or adults) are made to feel ashamed of their gifts. Discover how your child feels about being different, or about being around people who are different from him. Encourage him to feel secure about his differences. Teach him to separate cultural messages from his own self-worth.
Here are some strategies for protecting self-esteem that you can use and teach to your kids:
- Inquire. If someone insults you, ask “Is something wrong?” or “What do you mean by that?” This puts the responsibility back on the insult-giver and gives them the opportunity to express and clarify themselves.
- Confront. No one needs to “grin and bear it” or be martyr. If a put-down hurts, simply say, “Ouch,” and stand your ground. Letting the insult-giver know you have feelings might make him or her think twice about being mean.
- Withdraw. We don’t want to be around people who are nasty or cruel. It’s smart to get out of harm’s way; it might even save your life. But don’t get in the habit of running away from your problems.
- Consider the Source. Some people seem to wallow in negativity. Let them express whatever emotions they choose, remembering that those opinions have little or nothing to do with you.
- Don’t take it personally. People cut poppies to make themselves feel better, or at least better than you. Instead of reacting, you might try to figure out what’s underneath the barb. The put-down may have absolutely nothing to do with you!
- Humor. Many bright people have discovered that making others laugh is a good way to win them over. It’s also a wonderful skill for defusing tension. When teased about her coke-bottle glasses, for example, Helen would cheerfully reply, “Well, four eyes are better than none!” It always helps to think of a comeback before you need it so you don’t feel put on the spot.
- Make a Neutral Remark. When they finish their hurtful comment say, “Oh,” or “I see,” and leave it at that.
- Disagree. If someone called you a green kangaroo, would it hurt your feelings? Of course not, because you know that it isn’t true. What others say about you is just their opinion. You know the truth about yourself.
- Sift Through. There may be a grain of truth in what they’re saying, but they haven’t learned how to tactfully give you helpful feedback. For example, if someone calls you “slow poke,” explore that some more. You might actually need to speed things up a bit.
If an insult gets to you, don’t dwell on it. Try the following:
- Talk to a Friend. Find someone who is a good listener. Talking about it can help you think it through; it can also help you get perspective and release negative feelings. That’s one reason people go to counselors and therapists.
- Use Positive Self-Talk. Repeat this phrase to yourself over and over: “No matter what you say or do to me, I am a worthwhile person.”
- Give Yourself a Hug. Give one to your child. Hugs are great for a send-off in the morning, a welcome home later on, or an affectionate goodnight ritual. Life goes better with hugs! Use your imagination to support yourself:
- Wear a Shield. Imagine yourself wrapped in an invisible bubble of protection or white light. Negativity that comes your way will bounce right off.
- “Wax Your Back.” Each morning, pretend to coat yourself with wax or Teflon so insults and negativity slide off you like water off a duck’s back.
- Talismans. A piece of jewelry or a “lucky” garment that has special meaning to you can be a source of personal strength and power. (Super heroes do this all the time.)
- Permission to Be Different. Teach your kids that there is no one like them in the whole world. They are unique and they should be proud of that. This attitude can help them deal with pressure to conform. Give them permission to be who they really are.
Try these strategies and come up with new ones to protect self-esteem. You can even combine strategies. You don’t have to put up with put-downs. Practice the strategies with your children.
Above all else, increase the number of positive interactions you have, as well as the number of supportive people with whom you surround yourself. Bolster your self-esteem and self-worth on a daily basis. Just as enhancing the immune system can increase health and protect you from illness, enhancing self-esteem can increase well-being and protect you from social problems.
If all kids and parents could discover their abilities and find ways to express their gifts, the whole poppy field might stand a little taller and be more beautiful than ever!
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Louise Hart is a community educator, and author of two books. The Winning Family and On the Wings of Self-Esteem have been translated into half a dozen languages. A professional speaker, she currently teaches Positive Psychology as it applies to parenting. Dr. Hart has a Doctorate of Education in Community Psychology, which deals with the relationships of the individual to family, communities and the wider society.
Copyright 2010 Dr. Louise Hart is a Community Psychologist, author, and Grandmother.