An Interview with Dr. Charlotte
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PC: Welcome to Shrink Rap on KCSN 88.5 FM Arts and Roots Radio. I’m Phyllis Chase, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist here every Tuesday evening on your drive home to help you unwrap the issues that block your road to a life fulfilled. Tonight we’re talking about self-esteem and children. Many recent reports have discussed how there is good, and believe it or not bad, or not so helpful ways of increasing a child’s self-esteem. There are increasing studies showing how building children’s self-esteem is backfiring and creating narcissistic adults.
Our guest is Dr. Charlotte Reznick, a child and educational psychologist, former UCLA Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology. She is the creator of Imagery for Kids: Breakthrough for Learning, Creativity and empowerment, a positive coping skills program, and author of the therapeutic CD’s, Discovering your Special Place and Creating a Magical Garden and Healing Pond. A frequent media expert and international workshop leader on the healing power of children’s imagination, Dr. Charlotte is here tonight to share how inner imagination tools can help our kids develop the skills to solve many of the challenges they face today, as well as to explain to us just how we can build healthy self-esteem so our children don’t become narcissistic adults. Thank you Dr. Reznick for joining us tonight on Shrink Rap.
Dr.C: It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m thrilled.
PC: Tell us what’s good self-esteem and what’s bad self-esteem building? We don’t want our kids to have the bad self-esteem.
Dr.C: Bad self-esteem, think of criminals. They often think highly of themselves and do well on these self-esteem measures, but they have no regard for others.
PC: That’s what they’re talking about when you don’t have a sensitivity towards other people’s feelings.
Dr.C: Exactly. A sensitivity and the responsibility for your own actions. So good self-esteem, what I call good self-esteem, is feeling really good about yourself, knowing that you are worthy, knowing that you have a place in the world, knowing that it’s important to the planet that you’re here. That comes from lots of areas. Shall I go on to that?
PC: Tell me.
Dr.C: First, think of little kids. They get their sense of themselves from their parents, because they have no other source. Telling kids that they’re special, that they’re good, that you love them no matter what, is really important. Even though you think, well, are they going to be narcissistic because of that? No. Initially they really need to feel that they are unique, and (that) everyone is unique in their own way.
PC: So when they’re that young, it’s okay that they’re kind of the center of their universe?
Dr.C: They are the center of their universe. They absolutely are. When they’re toddlers, when they’re little, they need all that good stuff coming in so that they can build an inner sense of themselves. And that’s where the healthy self-esteem comes in. That’s where the good self-esteem comes in, where they feel good from the inside out. But initially they need to get it from the outside in. And then, always tying – that you’re a wonderful little girl, I’m so proud that you’re able to walk across the room, what a good job you did on cleaning your plate – with their actions. Then they start to feel they’re competent, and they’re worthwhile, and they can do things. And you want to tie in feeling good about yourself to being aware of others, being kind to others.
PC: At a later age would you start to do that, or from always?
Dr.C: You could start really almost immediately, certainly by age 3 when kids are really developing social skills. You teach them, “Thank you for sharing.” – That’s a big time to (learn to) share. “Thank you for playing nicely. You did such a good job playing nicely. What a good friend you are.” You tie in what they’re doing, their actions, to positive comments about themselves. And then they make the connection, then they start to think inside their own heads, “Wow, I’m a good friend, I shared,” and they move on from there.
PC: And that’s what a good friend does, so it gets reinforced. Do you really think that parents can create narcissistic adults by over-praising?
Dr.C: That’s a two-part question, so let’s go by over-praising. I don’t think over-praising turns out narcissistic adults, but I think there are many other factors when children are not really cared for, when they do feel unworthy, when they’re really reaching out for more and more help and praise because they didn’t get that initially from their parents.
PC: So you shouldn’t deprive them if they’re asking for it, right?
Dr.C: No. Not at all. You want them to feel special, not better than other kids. Just because they’re wonderful and you love them and they’re terrific, it doesn’t mean they’re better than anyone else.
PC: So you wouldn’t compare them to a younger sibling like, you did that so much better than… that would be building the unhealthy kind of self-esteem, that you would be instilling a kind of competitiveness and trying to win over other people.
Dr.C: Right. That would be a no-no. Definitely. That’s one of my no-no’s. Please don’t compare your kids to each other because it’s not fair to the child, then they might feel better about themselves (in the moment) but they might feel guilty. Why am I the child that gets praised?
PC: And what would they typically do with that guilt, act out do you think?
Dr.C: They might act out, they might stop sharing, they might be angry at their little brother or sister because they don’t understand. It’s a confusing message. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. So maybe Phyllis, you’re great with social skills, you have lots and lots of friends. I want to note that. I want to praise you for that. And maybe your sister is really good in sports. I don’t say “Oh, why can’t you be good in sports like your sister?” I would just focus on Phyllis, “You’re so incredible. I’m so amazed at all your friends. You’re such a good friend.” And your sister, I would let her know her strength. “Wow, isn’t that amazing how when you practice you do so well in soccer. That’s terrific.” Everyone’s different and you know what, there’s always someone that’s going to be better than you, smarter than you, prettier than you, and there’s always someone not as good, not as smart. So you have to develop a realistic sense of yourself, and parents could help kids with that.
PC: By really identifying their strengths.
PC: Keep stressing the strengths, and then hopefully making some kind of comments on where they need to grow and focus. Like maybe working a little harder on coordination, or sharing, or whatever the skill is that the parent wants them to learn a little better – to tell them what exactly to do.
Dr.C: Yes and that’s okay. It’s really okay. We want to teach our kids (that) some things I’m really good at, some things I’m not as good at. That’s okay. We’re all different. We all have strengths and weaknesses. And to feel I’m good no matter what. I was seeing this teenage boy (and) he was great in math and science in high school, but he was not very good in English. He could give up and say why bother with English, but really he had to think about this. “Okay, I know I’m smart. I’m doing well in math and science, not doing well in English. I think I’ll study more in English.” So that would make sense, study more in English.
PC: There you go. I think that some of these studies come out of just this concern that children (are) getting so much more attention, and they have become the center of the family and seem to be running the family sometimes instead of parents being parents. Is that really the concern that they were trying to address?
Dr.C: I think partly. I think there’s this me generation and they’re afraid that kids feel so good about themselves they’re not caring about other people. I think it’s very hard when you’re doing a study in a university with college students – which is where these studies are coming from – to really look at all the layers. It’s really multi-faceted, this self-esteem. It’s not just yes and no questions. For example, the study coming out of San Diego where Jean Twenge – who’s a very well-known researcher in this area – asked college students yes or no questions from a narcissistic (type) inventory. You say yes or no (to) “If I ruled the world, the world would be a better place,“ where I am special. Well, when you ask if I rule the world, the world would be a better place, you’re setting the student up because you’re not saying do you want to rule the world? It’s just saying if you ruled the world, would the world be a better place.
PC: Well I hope everyone would answer yes, wouldn’t you?
Dr.C: Yes. So I think that’s why results can be confusing.
PC: Sure. They’re not saying I want to rule the world, or I should rule the world, they’re saying if I did, I would hope it would be a better place.
Dr.C: Right. And she’s also saying or concluding from these questionnaires that the kids are different. They’re more narcissistic because they like to help, because it makes them feel good rather than it’s the right thing to do. Well, I think in a way it’s a higher level that you’ve incorporated helping others because it makes you feel good. Isn’t that wonderful. What’s wrong with that?
PC: Absolutely. That would sound like a good thing. So they are really, really confusing. So you’re not at all concerned about the bad self-esteem that they’re talking about in these studies?
Dr.C: No, I’m not, because they’re looking at one small aspect and they’re not really tying it in to other things I’m concerned about. The studies are a little bit bashing the self-esteem movement. The California Task Force on Self-Esteem back in the 80’s wrote up a treatise, and they definitely tied self-esteem, healthy sense of self-worth, with responsibility for your actions and with caring about others. So that’s the definition of self-esteem I look at. I just don’t look at (if) I feel good, that means I’m a narcissistic adult.
PC: Right. It’s very confusing to understand what their objection really was.
Dr.C: I think it’s a start, but it’s little bits. When you do research you have to look at lots of little bits so maybe in other studies, other things will come out. She also said, coming from this, that we should stop telling kids they’re so special, they’re just full of themselves. It’s just a different point of view. I think kids need to feel they are special, and to know what they’re good at, so they could develop a basis of then saying, okay, I’m worthy. I’m going to go and work hard. If I try hard I’ll be able to do well. They could imagine themselves… they might imagine themselves being the president of a Fortune 500 company or working as a star on a major league baseball team. For me that’s good. Goals are good. That kind of visualization is good because it gets you to start (the process of) where you want to go. Then, if you imagine where you want to go, you can take the steps to get there.
PC: Right. They say that most teens want to be famous, right? There are a lot of studies in that.
PC: … that they all think about being on TV or being in front of people. That’s our culture today, right?
Dr.C: It really is.
PC: They grow up watching TV. Why shouldn’t they want that?
PC: And then they come to terms with, oh well, maybe I don’t really want that, as they mature.
Dr.C: Right. And they look at the pros and cons of what comes with fame or the amount of work they have to do to get there and the risks of not getting there. They might decide sounds good, but I think I prefer to go into this profession, or to take this job, or to develop this skill.
PC: I just want to go back to the use of the word special. It seems like that’s what they’re objecting to in this study. Also, is that you’re so special because that is a little bit comparing you to other people, like is everybody special and how does that really fit? How does that make sense?
Dr.C: I think everyone is special in their own way because no two snowflakes are alike. There really are no two people alike except for identical twins and they actually have different spirits or souls so I don’t object to that so much, but I do like it tied to you’re so special because you’re my first daughter. You’re so special because you’re my oldest son. Lots of reasons. You’re so special because you’re on this planet and you have something important to do here.
Dr.C: You’re unique.
PC: So it’s really about uniqueness, not being better than somebody else or more special.
Dr.C: Right. I think that’s an important point to make. It’s not better than someone else, it’s just different and you have your own place in the world, and there’s something a little bit different about you. We might not even know it yet, but there’s something, I’m so glad you’re here.
PC: There you go. I think it’s hard for children… they don’t want to be different so saying you’re special doesn’t have that little thing of being…
Dr.C: Right, so then you have to decide on (what’s best for) your child. Maybe that word (“special”) is not good. Maybe (what is) better (is something more specific like) you’re so friendly, you have lots of friends, isn’t that nice. (What’s important is) you find what you child’s strengths and weaknesses are.
PC: And we tell kids that we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Mommy’s got this strength and Daddy’s got that strength, so maybe that’s helpful for them to see that people do take turns and help each other out with their strengths and weaknesses.
Dr.C: And it’s okay to make mistakes, and we all make mistakes, and we’re all human, and we learn from them.
PC: So Charlotte, I want to talk a little bit about your CD’s and the tools that you teach children to deal with the stresses of life. How did you come to create these?
Dr.C: That’s a great question. I was working as a psychologist in the inner city and the kids were so desperate and so low and so depressed, I thought I had to come up with something that would really touch their soul.
PC: There’s no safety in the inner city. They’re not safe at home and they’re not safe at school.
Dr.C: I realized they didn’t always have the support of the family. I had to find a way that they could be okay, no matter what, and the way to do that was to touch them in their heart, to help them develop their own tools, their own strengths inside. And so we know imagery and meditation have been around forever. It’s a way to calm the mind, and the idea is, if I could help them calm themselves, then they could access the wisdom that’s really inside.
PC: That’s interesting. So how do you get them to access the wisdom? A lot of parents are going, what do you mean wisdom? My children don’t have wisdom. They’re 3. Tell us about a 3-year-old’s wisdom, how you access it.
Dr.C: The foundation is learning to calm yourself – I call it the balloon breath for younger kids. Imagine you blow up a balloon that gets big, and it flattens (as you breathe) out. And if you breathe in about 2-3 inches below your belly button, that’s the center of your body, and when you breathe like that it calms you.
PC: Yeah. I’m feeling more relaxed.
Dr.C: If you practice with your 3 or 4-year-old – you could start at that age – just practice the balloon breath for fun. Then when they need it, it’ll be easier to access it. I wouldn’t say in the middle of a temper tantrum, do your balloon breath, just off the bat. No, it’s just a fun thing. And with little ones I might imagine a rainbow. They’re breathing in the rainbow, their favorite colors. And with teenagers or older kids, you change your language a little bit, but the idea is to find the place that’s calm, (so they can) calm themselves down, so that they learn not to react, but to respond.
PC: To respond with their own ways of calming, self-soothing.
Dr.C: Right. That’s exactly it. To learn to self-soothe themselves.
PC: Can you give me an example. You talked about this child who had trouble sleeping, right?
Dr.C: Right. I see kids with all kinds of issues. Life today is so stressful and so pressured that doctors are sending me lots of kids who have headaches, have stomachaches, can’t sleep, have tics, and there’s no really organic cause. They can’t find anything physical.
PC: Well, they say 90% of doctor visits are psychological and stress-related.
Dr.C: Right. So they know I have techniques. I have tools where we could go inside the child’s imagination and it’s another world. Think of Einstein. He said when he developed the theory of relativity he imagined himself floating on a beam of light – the imagination is so powerful. Our mind is so powerful, we’re only using about 10% anyway, so we might as well try to access more. I put together these little tools that help, and there are 9 different tools. For this little girl who was having trouble sleeping – I think she was about 7 or 8 at the time – she quieted herself. We had her go to a special place where she felt safe and comfortable and calm. Her favorite place. That’s a place where she could do her work. So once you have the balloon breath, you’re calming yourself, then you go to a special place. You could help your child do that kind of work. And then she asks for some assistance from her inner guides. These are imaginary helpers, so they could be wise animal friends that are going to help her solve her problems…
PC: And you talk them through this on the CD, or parents can say, ask your special favorite animal, or something?
Dr.C: Well, on the two CD’s I lead them through different places. So the first one – because I think it’s so basic – of course we start with the balloon breath. But then we go to their special place, and in their special place there’s a gift reminding them how wonderful and unique they are. They could create whatever they like, and it’s a wonderful place because you could put anyone there, as long as they love and accept you just the way you are. If they didn’t before, once they step through the door they do so. That helps bring in friends, parents who they had fights with, because it just creates a safe place for them. And then once you are there, you could do your inner work.
PC: Okay. Let’s play a little bit of the CD so maybe people can understand better even.
Dr.C: (From the CD) -- and as you’re surrounded by this beautiful cocoon of light, you find yourself on a beautiful path leading to a very special place and there are rainbow colors at your feet as you take each step toward your special place. It’s a lovely path and you might hear the sweet sounds of birds in the distance and you might feel the soft petals of flowers under your feet. There is a big beautiful door in front of you with your name in rainbow colors, all of your favorite colors and you know this place is just for you. This very special place that you’re about to enter.
PC: So, Charlotte, tell us some other stories about clients that you’ve worked with, with successful outcomes by using these CD’s and these tools.
Dr.C: Okay. The one you just heard is really helpful for kids to fall asleep because it takes them gently to a place where they could relax. There’s a little girl who was having a terrible time sleeping, partly because there were new babies in the home and she was a little bit jealous. But what she did was find a wise animal friend – for her it was a unicorn – in her special place, who gave her a gift. And the gift is one of the tools. You get gifts from your inner guides. (Hers) was a magic sleeping potion that she would sprinkle on her head every night before she went to sleep while she was saying, falling asleep, falling asleep. So she would put herself to sleep with the potion and with the CD, and of course after a while she didn’t need the CD because she was doing it on her own.
PC: She could just say falling asleep, falling asleep and it would cue it in. It’s sort of a little like self-hypnosis.
Dr.C: Exactly. Self-hypnosis for kids.
PC: That’s wonderful. How about the story you told me about the bully, the 11-year-old bully. ‘Cause anger is something that children (have a lot), you would think that… it’s a very sweet story. Tell us the story.
Dr.C: I see a lot of kids with anger for many different reasons – their parents are fighting, there’s divorce, they’re just angry, for many reasons. This boy was such a bully at school, nobody wanted to play with him. Plus he was fighting with his younger sister at home. So what he did – of course we learned the balloon breath, went to his special place – is that he then got in touch with his own wisdom inside his body. I had him imagine where he kept his anger and what color it was, so we’re adding another dimension. And he kept his anger in his gut, in his belly, and it was red, which is often a traditional color. Then I said okay, so now where do you keep your calm feelings and what color are they? His calm feelings were in his mind and they were blue. Then we did an experiment. We had him breathe in his calm blue feelings into the anger with eyes closed, and he noticed when he breathed in these calm blue feelings, it kind of covered up his anger.
PC: Really. Which wasn’t a good thing.
Dr.C: Well, it was helpful, it quieted it, but it didn’t solve the problem totally. What we did, we looked at his love, which for him was in his heart and was white. A lot of the girls will tell me their love is pink. This is a boy – he told me it was white. And so he breathed in his love feelings to his anger and what do you think happened?
PC: It melted away.
Dr.C: It dissipated, just dispersed all the anger. So he found out that love is much more powerful than calmness.
PC: Wow. That’s pretty extraordinary.
Dr.C: It was pretty amazing. I get the chills actually; I’m sitting here with the chills. And then he could also ask himself, would I rather be right – because he would get angry because he felt he was right – or would I rather get along?
PC: He had a preference for…
Dr.C: Most of the time he preferred to get along. Sometimes not, and he made a deal with himself that if he gave his sister a hard time unfairly, he would play Barbies with her, which he hated to do, but he would extend himself. He would apologize and he would ask her how can I make it up to you? And what she would say, because Barbies were her favorite (was) that he had to play a half hour of Barbies. So it was really repairing. It’s a wonderful thing to teach kids, not only to say they’re sorry, but to repair any damage.
PC: That’s awesome.
Dr.C: If I hurt your feelings or I do something wrong and I say Phyllis, I’m really sorry, how can I make it up to you? It’s going to melt you a little bit.
PC: I think I’m teaching those skills in marital counseling.
Dr.C: I just start a little earlier.
PC: I think that’s fantastic.
Dr.C: Another little girl had another problem at school, but different than this boy’s, and what that was she was rejected by her friends. You know how girls are? They get really catty and they just didn’t want to play with her.
PC: The cliques.
Dr.C: Yeah, the cliques, and they didn’t want to play with her and she was feeling really sad, very depressed. That drove her mom to bring her in to see me. And what we did was help her develop her own inner cheerleading section. So she went inside and she asked for someone to show up. She learned about her animal friend, she learned about a wizard. Sometimes you need extra magic. Sometimes I’ll have the kids just close their eyes and ask for help and see who shows up. An animal, a wizard, a wise person. For her it was a wizard. It was a crystal wizard and her wizard gave her gifts to help her. The gifts were a heart and a star crystal to help her feel good about herself.
PC: And she came up with a heart and a star crystal?
Dr.C: Absolutely. A 7-year-old came up with this – a heart and a star crystal to help herself no matter what, to love herself no matter what. Giving her that confidence, which really she gave herself, right?
PC: Yeah. That’s the question I have – when do they get that they are really doing it for themselves and it’s not the crystal wizard? Or is that important?
Dr.C: It doesn’t matter. It really is not important because these kinds of imagination tools allow you to bypass your defense system and get to the real answers. If you know it’s not real or it’s not helpful, then you won’t buy into it. But even teenagers find it helpful. It doesn’t matter if you’re 7 or 17, or any age.
PC: I think it’s just fantastic. So what was the outcome?
Dr.C: The outcome for her was that she had the confidence to go and make new friends at school. And she would play with other girls, and then once her old friends saw that she really didn’t need them, they wanted to be friends with her again.
PC: Interesting. That’s how it works. Dr. Charlotte Reznick, thank you so much for being here. It was really informative.
Dr.C: Thank you.