Fostering Self-Worth in Kids: Virginia Satir's Wisdom
Virginia Satir was an incredible person. She was a renowned family therapist and pioneer in the field of psychotherapy who made an enduring contribution to our understanding of family dynamics and human relationships. She believed always in the potential for human growth, and in her work she emphasized the crucial role that self-worth plays in our lives, introducing a powerful metaphor known as the "self-worth pot."
What’s the “self-worth pot”? Read on to find out and explore Virginia Satir's contributions to understandings of self-worth and how as a parent you can help your kids and teens with this.
Virginia Satir: Virginia Satir, born in 1916, was a visionary therapist and author who dedicated her life to helping individuals and families improve their emotional well-being and relationships. Her groundbreaking work in the 20th century transformed family therapy, and she is widely regarded as a pioneer in the field. These days her work is seen to be consistent with latest understandings from neuroscience. Virgina Satir is now considered ahead of her time with science catching up to her (see Bailey, 2021).
One of Virginia Satir's most enduring contributions was her emphasis on the importance of self-worth. She believed that a healthy sense of self-worth is fundamental to a person's mental and emotional well-being, serving as the foundation for positive relationships and personal growth. Low self-worth can show up as defensiveness, mistrust, perfectionism, procrastination, imposter syndrome, rebellion, anger, helplessness in the face of challenges, self-criticism, insecurities, relationship difficulties, fear of failure, self-doubt, substance use and mental health concerns.
So, it makes sense to take time to think about self-worth and help our kids grow their self-worth to set them up for wellbeing, resilience and great relationships.
If you are wondering how self-worth relates to self-esteem, these words are used interchangeably by Satir and she describes self-worth as representing the feelings and ideas a person has about themselves (Satir et al., 1991).
“Self-esteem is a concept, an attitude, a feeling, an image; and it is represented by behaviour”
Satir, 1988: 20
The Self-Worth Pot: Central to Virginia Satir's ideas on self-worth is the concept of the "self-worth pot." She proposed that each person has an imaginary pot within them, a vessel that holds their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. This pot is a metaphorical representation of how we perceive ourselves and how we value ourselves, independent of external validation.
The self-worth pot is like a secret garden, hidden from the eyes of others. It's a place where our most authentic feelings about ourselves reside. The challenge lies in nurturing and replenishing this pot so that it remains full and healthy.
Virginia Satir's development of the self-worth pot metaphor was deeply rooted in her own experiences and observations as a family therapist. She had a unique ability to empathize with her clients and understand the intricacies of their emotional struggles.
This is Virginia Satir’s story about the self-worth pot: “When I was a little girl, I lived on a farm in Wisconsin. On our back porch was a huge black iron pot, which had lovely rounded sides and stood on three legs. My mother made her own soap, so for part of the year the pot was filled with soap. When threshing crews came through in the summer, we filled the pot with stew. As other times, my father used it to store manure for my mother’s flower beds. We came to call it the ‘3-S pot’. Anyone who wanted to use the pot faced two questions: What is the pot now full of, and how full is it? Long afterward, when people told me about themselves – whether they felt full, empty, dirty, or even ‘cracked’ – I thought of that old pot. One day many years ago, a family was sitting in my office struggling to find words to tell each other how they felt about themselves. I remembered the black pot and told them the story. Soon the members of the family were talking about their individual ‘pots’, whether they contained feelings of worth or of guilt, shame, or uselessness. They told me later how useful this metaphor was to them.” Satir, 1988: 20 - 21
Satir realized everyone has a self-worth pot that can either be filled or drained. This metaphor became a powerful tool in her therapeutic practice and an enduring concept in the field of psychotherapy.
The Crucial Role of Self-Worth in Wellbeing and Resilience: Virginia Satir understood that self-worth is not just a nice-to-have quality; it's a fundamental cornerstone of an individual's overall wellbeing and resilience. Her insights into the significance of self-worth are relevant to understanding how it impacts our mental and emotional health:
Resilience in the Face of Challenges: When individuals have a strong sense of self-worth, they are better equipped to face life's challenges with resilience. They are more likely to bounce back from setbacks and adversity because they believe in their own abilities and worthiness. Satir believed that self-worth acts as a protective shield against the storms of life.
Healthy Relationships: A healthy self-worth is the foundation of healthy relationships. When people value and respect themselves, they are more likely to attract and maintain positive, loving, and respectful relationships. They set healthy boundaries and avoid relationships that are harmful.
Emotional Wellbeing: Self-worth is closely tied to emotional wellbeing. Individuals with high self-worth tend to experience lower levels of anxiety, depression, and other emotional challenges. They are more likely to engage in self-care practices and seek help when needed.
Personal Growth and Fulfillment: Self-worth is also closely connected to personal growth and fulfillment. When a person believes in themselves, they are more willing to take risks, pursue their passions, and embrace opportunities for growth. They are less hindered by self-doubt and fear.
Empowerment: Satir believed that self-worth empowers individuals to take charge of their lives. It fosters a sense of agency and control over one's destiny. People with a healthy self-worth are more likely to make choices that align with their values and aspirations.
Positive Self-Talk: Individuals with a strong sense of self-worth engage in positive self-talk. They are kind and compassionate to themselves, which contributes to a more positive self-perception. This positive self-talk acts as a buffer against negative external influences.
Energy Generator: Self-worth serves as a powerful generator of energy within a family. When individuals believe in themselves and their capabilities, they are more motivated and energized to pursue their goals, contribute to the family, and engage in meaningful activities. This positive energy radiates through the family unit, creating an atmosphere of enthusiasm and productivity. Family members are more likely to support each other's endeavours and celebrate one another's achievements, further fueling the cycle of positive energy and self-worth. In this way, self-worth becomes a driving force that propels family members toward growth, connection, and fulfillment.
As parents, caregivers, and mentors, we can play a vital role in helping children and teens develop and nurture their self-worth.
Self-Worth in Families: In Virginia Satir's approach to family therapy and the development of self-worth, family relationships hold a central and profound significance.
Satir recognized that the family serves as what we call in family therapy the “first school of life and love” in which an individual's self-worth is shaped. It is within the family unit that children first learn about themselves, their value, and their place in the world.
Find out more about the “first school of life and love” in this YouTube clip “The Backpack of Life”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0G6a8fpRgs&t=16s
Healthy family relationships provide fertile ground for self-worth to grow. When family members provide love, acceptance, and validation, they offer a solid foundation for children to develop a positive self-image. Conversely, if family dynamics are marked by criticism, neglect, inability to see and accept individuals as they are, restrictions on what feelings can be felt or expressed, or other difficult dynamics, a child's self-worth can be eroded.
According to Satir's approach, fostering healthy family relationships characterized by open communication, empathy, and mutual respect is essential for nurturing a strong and resilient sense of self-worth in individuals, setting the stage for their emotional well-being and positive relationships throughout life.
Here are some tips to help you as a parent to foster your children's self-worth:
Unconditional Love and Support: Unconditional love and support are the cornerstones of a family that fosters self-worth. Communicate love and acceptance to your child regardless of their achievements or behaviours. Let them know that your love is unwavering, creating a safe space for them to explore and express themselves. Children should feel that they are loved and cherished, not for what they do or how they behave, but for who they are as human beings. This love provides a stable and secure foundation for the development of self-worth. Remember though, kids can’t read your mind to see your love, you have to show it in your actions.
Active Listening: Practice active listening when your child talks to you, even if their interests are not your interests. Show genuine interest in their thoughts and feelings, validating their experiences. This helps them feel heard and valued. Entering their world this way is very powerful.
“If I had to summarize in one word all of the research on what kind of parenting helps create the best conditions for a child’s and adolescent’s growth and development, it would be the term “presence”.”
Daniel Seigel, 2013: 217 – 218
Encourage Self-Expression: Support your child's self-expression, whether it's through art, writing, music, or any other form of creative outlet. Encourage them to explore their interests and passions.
Healthy Communication: Open, honest, congruent, and respectful communication is crucial within the family unit. Members should feel safe expressing their thoughts, concerns, and needs without fear of rejection or ridicule. Healthy communication builds trust and reinforces the idea that each family member's voice is valued.
Acceptance of All Feelings: In a family that promotes self-worth, there is an acceptance of all feelings. Children are encouraged to express their emotions, whether they are positive or negative, without judgment or shame. This acceptance of feelings helps children learn to acknowledge and process their emotions, fostering emotional intelligence and resilience. Acceptance of emotions doesn’t mean we accept inappropriate behaviour. It means we accept how our child is feeling, that it’s their reality. If you’ve ever had someone tell you there’s nothing to be upset or angry about when you truly feel this way, you will completely understand the importance of this.
Separate the Behaviour from the Person: Your kids need to know you love them unconditionally. This means that when they mess up or have big behaviours, we let them know the behaviour was not okay, but that we still love them. We can do this with words, practicing using language that focuses on the issue and separates the problematic behaviour from the person, and also micro-moments of connection e.g., a hand on their shoulder, a warm smile, or a hug.
“We need 4 hugs a day for survival.
We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance.
We need 12 hugs a day for growth."
Teach Resilience: Help your child understand that making mistakes is a natural part of learning and growing. Teach them resilience and problem-solving skills, encourage a growth mindset, and emphasize that setbacks do not define their worth. To find out more about resilience in children read this blog https://www.drleoniewhite.com/post/building-resilience-in-children-a-key-to-thriving And to find out how to find out tips for fostering resilience in children read this blog https://www.drleoniewhite.com/post/fostering-resilience-in-children-top-tips-for-parents
Value Each Unique Individual: Each member of the family is recognized and valued as a unique individual with their own strengths, interests, and quirks. There is no expectation for anyone to conform to a particular mould or stereotype. Instead, family members are celebrated for their individuality, which promotes a healthy sense of self and self-worth. Think of your child like a surprise gift, to unwrap, discover, get to know, and nurture on their own unique path.
“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
No Need to Sacrifice Self for Acceptance: In a nurturing family environment, individuals are not required to sacrifice their authentic selves to fit in or gain acceptance and love. Family members are loved and valued for who they are, and they are encouraged to pursue their passions, beliefs, and values. This empowerment to be oneself contributes to a strong and resilient sense of self-worth.
Enjoy Your Kids: One of the most powerful things you can do to help develop your kids’ self-worth is to is to enjoy them. Enjoy your child whenever you can. This means little moments like a shared giggle or just hanging out together. Doing big, exciting things together is fun but connection doesn’t require money or big events.
Teaching Empathy and Compassion: Parents play a vital role in teaching empathy and compassion toward others within the family. When children witness and experience kindness, understanding, and forgiveness among family members, they learn to extend these qualities to themselves, strengthening their self-worth.
Model Self-Compassion: Self-compassion also lays a great foundation for modelling a growth mindset and supporting our kids to also develop this type of mindset for themselves. Be a role model by demonstrating self-compassion and healthy self-esteem. Children often learn from their parents, so show them how to handle setbacks and practice self-care.
Self-Worth Pot Activity for Children: Engaging children in creative activities can be an effective way to help them understand and apply the concept of the self-worth pot. And a great way for you to develop a shared language to be able to talk about self-worth. Here's a fun and interactive activity that parents and caregivers can do with children to identify "pot drainers," "pot cleaners," and "pot fillers."
3 pots (or paper cups to represent pots)
Scissors & paper (or paddle pop sticks to write on)
Pens/pencils for writing and decorating
Stickers for decorating
Introduce the Self-Worth Pot: Start by explaining the self-worth pot concept to your child, using everyday language. You can say something like, "We all have an imaginary pot inside us that holds our feelings of self-worth, like how we feel about ourselves. Sometimes, things can make our pot feel full and happy, while other things can make it feel empty and sad”; “Self-esteem is like a pot plant. It can grow. Some things that go into the pot help fill it so it grows well but some don't.”
Decorating the Self-Worth Pot: Give your child the pots (or paper cups) and ask them to decorate. They can be as creative as they like, decorating it with colours, patterns, or stickers. Encourage them to make it unique and personal.
Identifying Pot Fillers: Discuss with your child what makes them feel good about themselves. These are the "pot fillers." They can draw or write these things on the paper or paddle pop sticks and put them in the self-worth pot. Examples might include compliments, achievements, moments of kindness, people who encourage them, or things they're proud of.
Identifying Pot Drainers: Next, talk about what makes them feel bad about themselves. These are the "pot drainers." They can draw or write these things on the paper or paddle pop sticks and put them in the next self-worth pot. Examples might include negative comments, mistakes, or times when they felt hurt.
Pot Cleaners: Discuss ways to clean and replenish their self-worth pot when it feels drained. These are the "pot cleaners." They can draw or write these things on the paper or paddle pop sticks and put them in the last self-worth pot. Examples might include spending time with loved ones or pets, practicing self-care, or engaging in activities they enjoy.
Share and Discuss: After completing their self-worth pot, have a conversation with your child. Ask them to share what they've drawn and written and listen attentively. This is an opportunity to reinforce positive self-worth and help them understand how to address pot drainers and use pot cleaners.
Plants: Depending on your family you might even like to use these pots to grow plants after you’ve completed the activity :)
This creative activity not only helps children grasp the concept of the self-worth pot but also encourages open communication about their feelings and experiences. It empowers them to identify factors that affect their self-esteem and equips them with tools to maintain a healthy self-worth pot throughout their lives.
Download the activity here
Virginia Satir's insights into self-worth, particularly the concept of the self-worth pot, continue to be of relevance today in raising emotionally healthy and resilient children. By embracing her ideas and incorporating them into parenting , you can help your children cultivate a strong sense of self-worth, laying the foundation for wellbeing, resilience and healthy relationships in the future. Remember that nurturing self-worth is a lifelong journey, and your love and support play a crucial role in helping your children grow into their best selves…no matter how old they are.
How will you help you kids grow their self-worth?
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
PS Did you know that It’s always possible to raise your self-esteem, no matter you age or what you’ve experienced. Virginia Satir teaches us that low self-worth has been learned; that it can be unlearned and replaced with new learning.
“There is always hope that your life can change,
because you can always learn new things.”
Satir, 1988: 27
So maybe have a play with the self esteem pot activity for yourself :)
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
Bailey, M. E. (2021). Science catching up: Experiential family therapy and neuroscience. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 48, 1095 – 1110.
Nicols, M. & Davis, S. (2017). Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods (11th Ed). Pearson: Boston.
Satir, V. (1988). The New Peoplemaking. Science and Behaviour Books Inc: Mountain View.
Satir, V. (1983). Conjoint Family Therapy (3rd Ed). Science and Behaviour Books Inc: Palo Alto.
Satir, V., Banmen, J., Gerber, J. & Gomor, M. (1991). The Sator Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. Science & Behaviour Books, Inc.
Satir, V. & Baldwin, M. (1983). Satir Step by Step: A Guide to Crating Change in Families. Science and Behaviour Books Inc: Palo Alto.
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