We think we all love praise but actually when we think about it we might discover some odd feelings that it evokes – like shyness, embarrassment, awkwardness. It can be hard to just accept a compliment without throwing it back e.g. ‘oh, it’s only an old thing’ when an outfit is complimented, or ‘it was nothing’ when someone is thanked for making a big effort. In order to accept praise, we need to feel good about ourselves. The praise confirms what we already dare/hope to think – ie. That we look good in this outfit! If we worry that it looks awful then a compliment will lead to making us feel awkward.

So, how does this play into praising children? We can all see that they respond to praise from an early age and will lap it up. Research backs this up – it is good to praise and results in parent and child feeling good. So what happens to make children, and subsequently adults, struggle with praise? Some children are naturally more self-conscious than others and will feel embarrassed at any attention that makes them stand out from the crowd. Other children might have had difficult experiences that could affect their self-esteem. Those children need praise in a more thoughtful way.

It helps with any child but especially with one who struggles with praise to make the praise quite specific. So the thing the child just did is praised e.g. ‘Fantastic reading’. It is also better received if it is sincere. If you feel you’re just giving out praise as a parent because you should, it might be worth checking that and waiting until you experience a genuine feeling of pride or delight in what your child just did – then make sure you share it. It also needs to be immediate. Yesterday or even two hours
ago can seem like a very long time to a young child.

Another good way of getting praise across without causing embarrassment is by talking about your child to your partner or a trusted friend about something good the child has done or said or a way he made you feel when he did something or looked a certain way. In this way, praise can be given for the child just being e.g. ‘I love Sophie’s eyes’ or ‘I’m such a lucky mum to have Toby as a son’.

To consistently praise is a way of getting a child used to it. If you can praise even when you’re having a bad day, the child gets the message that he is loved and worthy whatever else is going on. And on those bad days, it can be tempting to follow the praise with a put down e.g. ‘Thanks for clearing the dishwasher. It’s a shame you can’t do that a bit more often’. The put down cancels out the praise and should be avoided, although I don’t know of a parent who hasn’t done this!

Finally, try to model self-praise. This is almost the hardest part of it. To speak confidently in a praising way about ourselves makes us feel like we’re bragging. It’s a complex picture that arises of us wanting not to make others feel we’re trying to be better than them, which is to do with us empathising with them but also wanting to be liked ourselves, and when we don’t self-praise, perhaps we are afraid of people disagreeing and upsetting us. Find something about yourself that you do feel good about and make sure you can talk about it to your child e.g. ‘I am pleased with that flower bed. I made a good choice of plants there’. It will help your child to receive praise, and one day to give it too.

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists