Are ‘copped on’ kids happier kids?
Our on-demand culture of constant entertainment, instant gratification and high expectations is leading to higher levels of frustration and anxiety in young people. Child psychotherapist Colman Noctor says we need to teach our children ‘cop on’ if they are to survive and thrive in today’s world.
A ‘copped on child’ is one who has the ability to be rational, resilient and sensible. They have the grit and the good judgement needed to cope with life’s challenges. Good self-esteem is a crucial part of having cop on.
Learning good self-esteem
Good self-esteem is crucial to being able to manage our emotions, thoughts and behaviours and is a central part of cop on. Although our individual temperament is a key factor, we can all learn to improve our self-esteem and that of our children. Creating a household that encourages lasting personal values such as honesty, kindness, friendliness and being a good person will cultivate a child’s self-esteem. Self-esteem involves valuing all the different facets of ourselves. So we must try to promote these values in the family home, and recognise and reward our children for valuing these qualities in themselves and others.
The Irish inferiority complex
Some cultures struggle more with the concept of self-esteem than others and, as a rule, the Irish don’t encourage it. It is often frowned on to show a liking for yourself, and it can be seen as being arrogant or smug. When I tell young people that it’s important to like yourself, many squirm in their chair just thinking about it. We have a collective notion that to love yourself is somehow wrong or unnatural; loving yourself is a point of view that is often mocked.
Bill Cullen, successful Irish businessman and TV star of ‘The Apprentice’ is a great example of this. Cullen often speaks publicly about how, when he wakes up in the morning, he stands in front of the mirror, pumps his chest out and tells himself: ‘Go, Bill, you’re the greatest, you can do it.’ He uses this strategy as a way of developing a strong belief in himself and the self-confidence he needs in the business world. But he has received a great deal of criticism in the media for this attitude and become an object of ridicule in some satirical radio shows.
For the Irish, these sorts of self-confidence-building exercises are an alien concept. Irish culture seems only to value excessive humility, and sometimes I feel we associate honour with self-denigration. So when I talk to young people learning to love themselves, I change my terminology. I no longer talk about ‘selfesteem’ or ‘self-love’, but instead refer to having ‘self compassion’ for yourself, which seems more palatable to an Irish audience
This difference is small, but the effect of changing the focus from ‘loving yourself ’ to ‘giving yourself a break’ has had a noticeably positive effect on their willingness to buy in to the concept. If we promote a culture of compassion for ourselves among our children, we’ll teach them how to relate compassionately to themselves in times of perceived failure – which will then fuel their resilience and cop on. Indeed, an understanding of compassion on a personal level will help them to treat others with kindness and understanding – and a bit of cop on – as well.
Good self-esteem or spoiled brat?
I recently gave a talk in Dublin for parents. The organiser had asked me to focus on self-esteem, explaining that she wanted children in her school to learn about the line between liking themselves and becoming “arrogant, tyrannical, spoiled brats”. This is the challenge for all parents: if we ‘big up’ our child’s ability too much, will they have too much selfesteem? How do we get the balance right?
The tail that wags the dog
So what is good self-esteem? It’s not thinking you’re the bee’s knees, nor having an over-inflated sense of self, nor being overconfident. Self-confidence is how we project ourselves to the rest of the world; self-esteem is how we relate to and evaluate ourselves. It is possible to possess a lot of confidence but have very little self-esteem. One of the main challenges to our self-worth and self-esteem is when we overvalue a single (typically negative) aspect of our lives, which can mean the ‘tail wags the dog’ – thoughts like: ‘If I were thin, I’d be happy’ or ‘If I were popular, I’d be happy’. In fact, if someone is genuinely happy, they don’t ‘need’ any of these things, and if they did achieve happiness by becoming thinner or more popular, they’d probably only strive to be thinner and more popular still.
The way to avoid this is by developing a stronger sense of our multi-faceted nature, and recognising the difference between wanting to do well and needing to do well. Children with good self-esteem may want to do better to add to their already robust sense of self; if they have good self-esteem, they will have the resilience, grit and cop on to handle it if it does not happen.
When children need to be the best, they may struggle to adjust to a perceived failure. ‘Need’ means that this accomplishment defines their self-worth, whereas ‘want’ means it merely adds to their other accomplishments.
Colman Noctor is a child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. “Cop On” is published by Gill Books priced €16.99.
This article has appeared previously in Slainte Magazine.