I Gave My Daughter Too Many Compliments, And It Hurt Her Self-Esteem

by Colleen Dilthey Thomas
Originally Published: 
A mother talking to her daughter and giving her too many compliments
Michael H/Getty

I have long struggled with disordered eating and body image. It has plagued me since adolescence. I am now in my 40s. I have one daughter and three sons. When my daughter was born, I vowed that I wouldn’t allow her to fall into the trap of picking herself apart, which can lead to a miserable life of self-loathing. That is what happened to me. But she is only five. Way too young for that kind of stuff. Or so I thought.

While getting ready for bed one night she was brushing her hair after her shower. Dressed in her favorite JoJo Siwa gown and fuzzy slippers, she was the epitome of a darling, innocent little girl. As she gazed at herself in the mirror, she said, “Momma, I don’t like the way my eyes look.” Tears welled and I could feel a lump in my throat. No! This wasn’t happening. Not now. She is just a baby.

I quickly asked why, and she said it was because they’re brown. I wasn’t sure how she decided that brown eyes were bad, but she was adamant. I told her that I loved brown eyes and that I wished that I had eyes just like hers; she shook her head no. I decided not to prod any further. I didn’t want to make it into a bigger deal. Maybe I was putting too much thought into it.

After I put her to bed, I walked out into the hall and lost it. I couldn’t hold in tears. I had prayed so hard that she wouldn’t be like me. It is a terrible existence that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It hurts every relationship that I have ever had. When you do nothing but pick yourself apart and look for something to be wrong, you cannot be happy. You will undoubtedly suck the fun out of everything because you hate your hair or your face or your body. She can’t do that!

Had someone said something to her? Did she see something on YouTube? Am I a terrible mother for not monitoring all of her screen time? Surely I didn’t make her self-conscious, did I? I try so very hard not to be self-deprecating around her, but I was beginning to wonder if she was listening when I thought she wasn’t.

I texted my husband and told him that I was gutted. That it was my fault. I had made her doubt her beauty and her worth. She was unhappy with something superficial and she is only five — what will happen the older she gets?

He assured me that it wasn’t me. He said she could have heard anyone remark about someone having pretty green eyes or blue and wished that she had been told the same. That made me feel a bit better, but I wasn’t finished.

I asked her older brothers if any of them had said anything to her about her eyes. They denied any wrongdoing. I believed them. They aren’t that kind of kids, and if they are going to make fun of someone, they would be ribbing on each other. They wouldn’t go after her. I was stumped.

Then it dawned on me. She is the only one in our family of six with brown eyes. And they aren’t just brown; they are a rich chestnut with gorgeous sparkle. I am a bit obsessed with how beautiful they are. Yes, I remark about her “baby browns” all the time. I had made her eyes such a big deal that I had embarrassed her about them. She didn’t want to be different. She wanted eyes like her brothers, or maybe her dad and me. I tried to build her up so much that she became uncomfortable. I felt so dumb.

The same thing happened to me as a kid. I have had big breasts my entire life. Not like 36DD big, more like 38G. I was a double D in eighth grade. And the whole world let me know it. Once in grade school we were playing kickball and one of the boys in my class yelled to the teacher, “Don’t make her run or she’ll get two black eyes.” That was the end for me. I spiraled from that moment at age 12. Words hurt.

Even my words that were meant to build my daughter up were making her self-conscious.

If it really was me that hurt her, I needed to make a change. From now on, I am going to be a bit more careful with my compliments. I will definitely continue to give them and to let her know how brilliant and beautiful she is, but I am not going to go on and on about one thing. I may tell her things like, “That shirt brings out your beautiful eyes.” Or “You did such a great job memorizing those facts.” Maybe, “You did so well on your spelling test, it’s exciting to know so many words.” And, “Your smile lights up a room and makes me smile too.”

I will do my best to let her know that she is unique and just as she was intended to be. There is no one like her, and she should be proud of everything about herself. I will be subtle but sincere with my compliments. And in my mind I will continue to gush over those baby browns, because they really are the prettiest that I have ever seen.

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