Self-love is something all human beings struggle with regardless of age or ability. But when children perceive they are flawed—either from an autism label they have been given, or a negative comment from a bystander, or an expectation they cannot realistically meet—the ability to love self can be very difficult.
The book, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, is written by Naoki Higashida, a 13 yr old non-verbal boy with HF Autism. When I read the book, I was struck by this young author’s insight, maturity, and wisdom beyond his years as he responded to the question, “Would you like to be ‘normal.’”
He stated, “For us, you see, having autism is normal—so we can’t know for sure what your ‘normal’ is even like. But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I am not sure how much it matters whether we’re normal or autistic.” How profound for such a young mind!
How does a child learn to love self? Unfortunately, our current media-saturated society bombards children with messages and images of unrealistic perfection that they constantly compare themselves to. This makes it difficult for children to get in touch with and accept their true and precious selves.
On Valentine’s Day, the focus is all about showing our love to others, which is great! Unfortunately, loving others means giving from inside and if nothing substantial or positive exists within, there’s nothing to draw from and share with others.
Helping your child explore how he/she feels about himself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually will help them fulfill his sense of self and supply him/her with something to send out to others and have it returned in greater measure.
So where does one start? How do you teach a young child to love himself or herself enough to have a positive sense of self, and yet, not develop an inflated ego that feels so entitled it leads to indifference?
I believe there is a connection between self-talk and self-love. Regardless of your child’s challenges and abilities, ALL children benefit from learning to listen to the positive voices inside their heads, and if your child doesn’t have many, you need to help him/her develop some.
Self-compassion is a good first step to take. It is something Kristen Neff, author of the book, Self-Compassion – the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, is passionate about. Her research counters the argument that loving yourself makes you self-centered and unmotivated.
Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas in Austin has completed a study that shows how self-criticism undermines motivation. When our self-talk is negative, it is an attack on our self-concept, and we feel threatened. “With self-criticism, we are the attacker and the attacked” which is a double whammy according to Dr. Neff 1. As a result, the fight or flight response takes over and releases large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, and stress levels increase. And if you are a constant self-critic your body will eventually shut down to protect itself and depression can easily set in, making both love of self and love of others more unlikely.
One way to practice self-compassion is to treat yourself kindly by increasing the amount of positive self-talk and minimizing your negative inner voice. Studies also show that when we think soothing thoughts about ourselves oxytocin and opiates are released which makes us feel good.
So get that voice inside your child’s head to practice compassion and focus on the positive. The power of positive self-talk for children on the autism spectrum will help override any existing negative self-talk that may be keeping them from loving themselves.
Here are two activities you can do to ban the self-critic inside your child’s head and paint a more affirmative self-portrait.
Have your child list some positive traits he/she has such as honesty, kindness, patience, caring, smart, etc. Add to the list of characteristics you believe he/she possesses as well. Then take several sheets of blank paper and write one trait on the top of each. Leave the rest of the page blank for writing down examples of how this trait is displayed. Your child might be able to identify and voice the following: “Mom told me I was kind when I shared my ball with my brother.”
If your child struggles with this, prompt him/her by pointing out how you see these positive attributes displayed. Tell your child what you observe regarding each trait and write it down. “You were patient when you waited for your turn at the slide.”
Repeat this with other family members and friends so your child can see his/her positive traits from as many perspectives as possible. A sibling might write, “You were kind when you told me I could play with you.”
As each page grows with examples of how your child demonstrates each quality, a visual picture will begin to emerge that is full of positive, loving energy. Post these sheets in your child’s room and review one each morning before he/she starts his day and another at night before you tuck him/her into bed. This will program your child’s brain with thoughts that trigger self-love and help create more of the same.
Depending on where your child is on the autism spectrum, he/she may be more visual and think in pictures. Therefore, find visual pictures that represent the affirmation you want him/her to absorb and cut them out. Have your child look for pictures of what is important to him/her and what he/she’s good at, or wants to be good at.
You can then use these photographs and pictures to create a vision board with your child. This is a great tool to create a positive atmosphere in a child’s bedroom, a place where he/she can refer to it often. Doing this activity together will not only enhance your connection to your child, but it will also give you insight into his likes and dislikes, passions and interests.
Why not spread the wealth and promote self-love for all family members. Consider doing these activities for each member of the family highlighting a different individual each week or month? Then stand back and watch the self-love grow!
Connie Hammer, MSW, PCI Certified Parent Coach® and author of Autism Parenting: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience – Over 300 tips to help parents enhance their child’s school success. Hammer coaches and supports parents facing the challenges of raising a child with autism, or other special need, by helping them deal with the diagnosis and empowering them with time-saving tactics and resources to positively impact their child’s potential.
This article was featured in Issue 72 – Sensory Solutions For Life