Does your kid blow out if you tell them you love them, think they're cute, etc.?
When J first moved home if you paid her the slightest unconditional compliment you might as well give the day up because it was going to be ugly. Her self-esteem was in the toilet. She didn't even have a little bit. I would give her an unconditional positive and her brain would say, "I'm crap, I'm a horrible kid, that woman is a liar and she can't be trusted, can't she see I'm a piece of dirt, etc."
I've told this story before but shortly after J came home (she was 5) I quickly figured out that she couldn't handle unconditional praise so I didn't do it. Unfortunately for us she needed a haircut soon and you can't just go around tell people not to tell your kid that they are cute. So...I took her to get a haircut. The hair stylist, not knowing, gushed over J. "Oh look how beautiful you are! How cute you are. blah, blah, blah." I was trying to rush us out of there so I didn't get my hair cut cause I knew that hell was about to arrive. We made it to the car just as it landed. The back of my truck was all but destroyed. The seats were ripped up, the console was decimated, things were thrown at the back of my head all the way home. etc. Fun times. Internally she thought she was a piece of crap therefore she had to "show" me that she was. Total sabotage. It happened everywhere until I had to start going to a grocery store 30 minutes away just to avoid people praising and hugging J.
Let me back up and explain conditional praise/unconditional praise. Unconditional praise is not based on anything they have done to earn it. As in:
You're such a great kid.
I love you.
Conditional praise is based on something they have done to earn it.
Good job folding the clothes.
Good job tying your shoes.
Good job matching your clothes.
J couldn't even stand the "good job" so I would have to say things like:
I noticed you tied your shoes.
I noticed you wiped the table well.
I gave her lots of little jobs so that I could give her conditional praise but ONLY if she really did a good job. If it wasn't a really good job and I told her it was, she thought I was a total Liar McLiar pants and blow out because she knew it wasn't a good job. And she would test me on that just to make sure I was paying attention over and over and over. This built her self-esteem at the same time.
Nice job playing fair.
I noticed you colored inside the lines. (This didn't happen very often as with most RAD kids.)
I like the way you matched your clothes.
I like the way you carried your plate to the kitchen.
That was a funny comment.
I noticed you remembered to take out the trash.
Then later we worked up to the L word not about her though....
I love the way you colored inside the lines.
I love that you did your dishes without being asked.
I love that you made up my bed as a gift to me.
We worked up from these phrases until she could stand unconditional praise. Now she loves it but it's because now she believes she's cute, funny, thoughtful, sweet, etc. Her insides match her outsides if you will. Now she will beam if you give her an unconditional positive. This did NOT happen overnight. It took years. Because it's still ingrained in me to do unconditional positives so I still do them. But....the important thing is that now there are no more blowouts from a random stranger, teacher, grandparent, or ME telling her she's beautiful cause now she knows it's true.
Don't get me wrong...there are still days that she has a hard time accepting praise but these are the days where she is stuck and I can move back (when I have my therapeutic panties on) into lots of conditional positives until she can hear them. Thankfully those are few and far between now. Most days she oozes love, confidence and thoughtfulness. I love that about her!