Praise is one of the most basic methods parents use to encourage good behavior and positive self-esteem. However, praise must be used cautiously.

Children will accept positive comments only if they’re consistent with their self-image. Unconditional praise and approval (“You’re such a great kid.”) is only constructive when a child has a positive self-image. This type of general praise backfires with wounded children who have negative core beliefs. Unconditional messages of praise contradict this child’s views of himself or herself, and two negative reactions may result: You lose your credibility (“You are stupid; you don’t know the real me.”); your child’s acting out increases (“I’ll show you how wrong you are.”). Try these tips for praising a child with a negative self-image:

Praise the behavior, not the child. Give your child praise and approval for specific actions, attitudes and tasks completed. For example, say, “I like the way you cleaned the kitchen table — thanks for pitching in,” rather than something less specific and defined, such as, “You’re such a great kid.”

Make sure your praise is genuine. Never praise your child if you don’t mean it. He or she can tell when you are faking it. Do not praise for the sake of praising because this dilutes the significance of truly deserved praise. Make sure your tone and body language match your words.

Find some behavior to praise. It is easy to be pessimistic and critical with challenging children, but it is best to focus on the positive. Noticing and validating little successes eventually lead to bigger successes. Catch your child doing something right and well!

A quick example

Eight-year-old Tim struck out at bat in the baseball game. Dad tried unconditional praise: “That was a great try.” Tim didn’t think it was a great try and became angry. It is better to use empathy. (“You must be really disappointed.”) followed by praise of a specific behavior (“I liked the way you put a lot of energy into your swing.”) and encouragement (“I bet you’ll get it one of these times.”).