How family dynamics and sibling relationships can affect your child’s self-esteem

How family dynamics and sibling relationships can affect your child’s self-esteem

In this Q&A with Terri Apter, psychologist and author of You Don’t Really Know Me: Why Mothers and Daughters Fight and How Both Can Win, we look at issues within family relationships that can have a big impact on your child's self-esteem.

When older siblings affect self-esteem

Question: How do we stop our 13-year-old growing up too fast?

We have two daughters – one is 13 and the other is 17 – and our youngest idolises her older sister. She wants to do everything that she does and feels she should be allowed to do the same things – whether it’s watching the same TV programmes (which aren’t really appropriate for a 13-year-old), or wearing make-up and staying out later on weekends.

She feels we treat her like she’s still a baby but we feel she’s desperate to act like a 17-year-old instead of a 13-year-old and we think it’s our job to make sure she enjoys her childhood and doesn’t grow up too fast.

- From a father of two daughters, aged 13 and 17.

Answer: Family problems can be caused by low self-esteem, make sure she knows she’s important

It would be worthwhile making an effort to give special time to your younger daughter to reassure her that she, as a 13-year-old, is also interesting, and hopefully diffuse her eagerness to emulate her older sister. This could be an opportunity to ask her about her interests and show great interest in getting to know her and coming to understand how she is developing. You could ask her what TV programmes she likes, and of these select something (that in your view is suitable for her) and watch it with her, show your enjoyment of it, explore what she likes about it. You could also suggest that she join you in certain activities (either physical activities or intellectual discussions).

It may also be helpful to express your concern to your older daughter, and suggest that she too shows an interest in what her little sister is doing, thinking and feeling.

When family problems are caused by impossible body ideals

Question: Is my son’s behaviour impacting on my daughter’s self-esteem?

My teenage son talks a lot about "hot" girls, comments excitedly when girls with curvy bodies are on television and says that's what he wants in a girlfriend. It worries me that my 10-year-old daughter will believe looking this way is what really matters – she’s already saying things like "maybe I should dye my hair" and "I think I'll go on a diet”.

- From the parents of a 10-year-old daughter and teenage son.

Answer: Family relationships require communication, gently challenge your son about his comments

Young people are exposed to a wide variety of remarks, images and stories that highlight the importance of looks and set impossibly high physical ideals. When they measure themselves against these ideals, their self-esteem may take a battering – not only because they do not believe they meet these standards but also because appearance is seen as more important than their emotional and mental wellbeing.

No parent can protect their child from all social pressures but they can help them to resist these ‘norms’ in many ways, including opening up discussions about assumptions behind body image. Above all, a parent can show their child that they respond to their thoughts, feelings, goals and ideas and see these as paramount, rather than appearance.

The ability to resist negative pressures is crucial to a young person’s self-esteem. And the mother speaking here could also have a good discussion with her son and challenge his focus on girls’ appearance. Challenging the son’s idealisation with humour or a ‘light touch’, by pointing out how far removed from reality these images may be, can be a good way of responding to his comments.

An older brother represents a special authority to a younger sister: he is the 'knowing one', so his apparent wisdom may make her feel inadequate in his world. If the mother challenges his biases, she shows her daughter that ideals that challenge her self-esteem are not sound ideals.

Dealing with divorce: maintaining a positive father-daughter relationship

Question: How can I help my daughter to stop feeling rejected by her father?

I am a single mother who split from my 11-year-old daughter's father when she was eight. In theory he has her for a day every weekend, but he is very unreliable and sometimes turns up very late. Other times he phones at the last minute to say he can't make it. It is very hard on our daughter because she gets all dressed up for him almost as though she is trying to compete with the glamorous woman he is with now. She feels she isn't attractive and fun enough for her dad and that is why he treats her this way.

- From the mother of an 11-year-old girl.

Answer: A good father-daughter relationship is important, talk her through the real causes of his behaviour

It is hard on a parent to see someone her child loves behave in a way that undermines their self-esteem, because, as in this case, they can’t always protect their child from the other parent’s unreliable behaviour. A way to show support might be to focus the discussion on personal reliability, why some people keep changing their plans, and consider together what motives or character traits might shape this behaviour.

In this way you not only shift the assumption that they are somehow at fault; you also empower them with the capacity to understand and reflect on others' actions and motives.

It’s important to try to help your child focus on love: just because their parent doesn’t turn up doesn’t mean they don’t love them and it certainly has nothing to do with what they are wearing or how they look. In offering this comfort, however, it is important not to belittle your child’s experience of disappointment and rejection.

Family problems in focus: nicknames and name-calling

Family nicknames can be a source of angst for young people, from sibling name-calling to affectionate nicknames that were once acceptable. 

Affectionate nicknames such as “lovable lump” may be well intentioned, but good intentions are not sufficient. Be sensitive to your children's response to family nicknames (bear in mind that this may change as they grow up) and help your partner and other family members recognise signs that a nickname is inappropriate or makes your child feel uncomfortable. Encourage change in a positive way, by reminding the family member how much a young person's comfort with their physical appearance (as well as their mental and emotional self) depends on being valued and respected.

When it comes to brothers and sisters name-calling, the best time to challenge this is in the wake of a recent bout of taunting, so the words are fresh in everyone’s memory. Ask your child to explain what upset them, and get their sibling to explain what they meant by their taunts. Your children may not be able to articulate their meanings and responses straightaway, but challenging them will make them think.

Ask the sibling doing the name-calling to try to see their behaviour from the other’s point of view. Use questions such as ‘what do you think it feels like for them?’ or ‘what are you trying to achieve by making them feel bad?’ 

Talking about the feelings and emotions behind this behaviour with both the victim and the perpetrator will help them understand why it occurs. You will bolster your children's self-esteem by showing them that their feelings matter, and you'll be helping them to challenge any insults and taunts that may come their way in the wider world.

next steps

  • Consider asking older siblings or other family members to help deal with individual family problems – sometimes it can be invaluable for both you and your child to have another family member’s perspective
  • Deal with teasing or taunting in the moment. Talk to both parties and try to help each one see each other's point of view
  • Assure your children that you will talk through anything calmly, sincerely and honestly – and then prove it. Honest relationships with parents are the best way of building your child’s self-esteem
  • Read our article When does family banter become family bullying? to learn more about when teasing in family relationships can become harmful to self-esteem