Contrary to its intention, praise does not always make a child feel good.
Whilst we might typically think of praise as a gift, it is technically an evaluative judgement on the other person (e.g. “you’re a good girl” or “you’re a brilliant artist”), which for some children can be experienced as threatening or even dysregulating (Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory).
This risk is particularly pronounced in children whose earliest relationships have not enabled them to trust in the safety of relationships and/or have caused them to develop negative core beliefs about themselves as inherently bad or unlovable. For these children, being told that they are “good” or “fantastic” at something, is so far removed from their own sense of themselves that they cannot make use of it. More likely, they will be put on high alert for when the other person will no longer see them as “good” and will see their true self. It also creates inevitable comparison – and therefore, competition, with other children. For very traumatised children, therefore, ‘global praise’ (or generalised, non-specific praise), can actually act to undermine their trust in the safety of their relationship with the person giving it to them (Hughes, Golding & Hudson, 2019).
Whilst not all children have experienced developmental trauma, however, it is still true that global praise is not helpful to children. This is because it contains too little information about what the giver is enjoying about the child, or what they are doing well, for them to make use of it. Indeed, a natural tendency (for any of us!) when offered global praise, is to immediately deny it (e.g. “I don’t always have gorgeous hair! You didn’t see me yesterday!”), to assume that the giver is lying or does not know what they are talking about (“As if I always sound intelligent!”), to focus on our weaknesses (e.g. “Clever! You should see me doing my times tables!”), to make us anxious (e.g. “I’ll never be able to hit the ball again now you’ve said I’m a good shot!”) or to assume that we are being manipulated (e.g. “What’s she after?”; Faber & Mazlish, 2001).
A healthier alternative to global praise is ‘descriptive praise’. That is, the act of actively looking for specific things that you appreciate, value or enjoy about your child (e.g. “You two have just sat there colouring for 20 minutes with no squabbling”, or “You picked up all your toys, thank you!”) In offering descriptive praise, parents and professionals should attend as much, if not more so, to the effort that a child is making as their achievements (e.g. “I can see you are putting so much hard work into revising your spellings”). They should also ‘own’ their opinions (e.g. “I really like what you’ve drawn there. I like the stripes on your zebra. I think that’s a great drawing!” rather than “you’re a brilliant artist!”).
Unlike global praise, descriptive praise helps to build children’s self-esteem. This is because it supports children to start to recognise the positives in themselves. This happens because having someone else point out specific things that they like or value about them, in a way that they actually can hear and accept it, enables children to give themselves the praise they deserve (e.g. “Yeah, I did draw that chimney well”). Descriptive praise can also be a wonderful way of building enjoyment, joy, trust and security in attachment relationships, for instance, building in a period of descriptive praise for the child before they go to sleep each night. Further, descriptive praise can help to build a child’s resilience, as parents can support their child to start to recognise all their strengths in the face of adversity (e.g. “I know you’re sad that you didn’t make the football team, but I was so impressed with how you went and congratulated the other players. I thought that was really kind”).
For descriptive praise to be effective, however, it should always be within the context of GENUINE heartfelt appreciation and gratitude for the child or their behaviour, as our non-verbal communication is always stronger than our verbal.
Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (2001). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. Piccadilly Press
Hughes, D., Golding, K. & Hudson, J. (2019). Healing Relational Trauma with Attachment-Focused Interventions: Dyadic developmental psychotherapy with children and families. W. W. Norton & Company.
Porges, S. (2019). Home of Dr. Stephen Porges. www.stephenporges.com; Accessed: 2019.06.07