Research has shown that some of the things that may feel like you’re helping your child could be hurting them in the long run. Understanding that it is important for their fundamental development and independence to allow your children to make mistakes, lose or fail, and show them self-worth isn’t defined by their performance can make a world of difference.
How Will I Know When My Child’s Self-Esteem Is Low?
Self-esteem is your own perception of how you feel about yourself, but is often developed and shaped by experiences throughout one’s lifetime. As a child, self-esteem can be developed by struggling, and quite possibly even making mistakes when trying something new.1
Common warning signs of low self-esteem in a child could include:
- Isolation from others (both adults and peers)
- School-resistance (assignments, attendance, participation, etc.)
- Overly emotional or reactive
- Easy to get upset
- Fear of trying new things
- Loss of motivation
- Somatic symptoms (stomach hurting, headache, etc.)
- Negative self-talk
- Comparing self to others
You may notice when there’s a problem from some of the warning signs listed above, but it’s not a cause for worry or panic. Observe when your child starts to present with some of these warning signs and what is going on in that moment. Noticing what is happening in the moment helps you understand where your child’s self-esteem may feel the most threatened—whether it is at school, with peers, at home, or anywhere else your child is involved.
Have honest and open conversations, inviting your child to talk about how they feel about themselves and reminding them that they are loved no matter what. This is a key factor in fostering healthy levels of self-esteem.
The Importance of Building a Child’s Self-Esteem
Self-esteem fosters resilience and the ability to pivot when necessary, responding to change and difficult circumstances with more grace and optimism.2 The American Society for the Positive Care of Children (American SPCC) highlights that it is especially important for children to develop self-esteem, as this allows them to engage in healthy relationships, step out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves with ambition.
Lead researcher, Eddie Brummelman, has been studying the developing self and has conducted multiple studies to understand the impact self-esteem and parental praise has on children. It is a common belief that overly praising children and extremely high levels of self-esteem can lead to narcissism. In one of Brummelman’s most recent studies, research has shown that narcissism and self-esteem are more separate than once previously believed. The study’s conclusion informs that it is possible to raise children’s self-esteem without breeding narcissism.3
Self-concept develops in the early stages of life, as babies learn from how people respond to them and see them. As children age, their innate yearning for independence grows stronger and stronger. With this may come your “Terrible Twos” or the era of the “Three-nager” and so on, butThe Whole Child reminds us that “[y]our challenge is to learn how to accept the child as a person, even when we do not accept [their] behavior.”4 It can be helpful to understand the core concepts of social and emotional learning to better promote this sense of self concept in your child. Additionally, you should encourage their independence as much as possible, because this allows for opportunities to reach small goals and leave children feeling good about themselves.
Children are like sponges, constantly watching and absorbing life around them. As a parent or guardian, be mindful of your own levels of self-esteem and how you view yourself. When children watch you glare at the mirror in disgust, or saying negative things aloud about yourself, children will begin to mirror those behaviors for themselves. You want to create an environment for your child that has unconditional love and remembering that “your words, tone, and actions reflect whether you see your children as being worthwhile or an annoyance and whether you see them capable or inept.”5
9 Tips for Helping Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem
There is a lot you can do to bolster your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Make sure to give them opportunities to be self-reliant and be mindful of the language you use toward and around your children.
1. Positive Attention
The Center for Parenting Education explains, “children crave their parents’ attention. If they do not get attention from positive behavior, they will seek out negative attention. So acknowledge and praise the behaviors you want to see repeated.”5 Become aware of the type of attention you’re giving your children. The Center for Parenting Education provides examples of how we can share our time and positive attention by sitting next to them, smiling when they enter a room, and offering a hug.5 Reflect on the type of attention that you’re giving—is it mindful or rushed?
Giving mindful attention can be challenging when working from home or spending what feels like every waking second taking care of your children. If you know you have a few work calls or chores to get done around the house, explain to them how much you want to spend time with them, and decide together what you can do as soon as you’re finished with the task. This shows your child that they’re not being forgotten about or chosen over boring work stuff. Help them choose an activity that can be done without much supervision while you get your work done. Set a realistic expectation for your child and the amount of time they’re willing to wait without getting fussy—after all, you need breaks from working too!
2. Respect & Making Choices
Respect is a great way to instill feelings of self-worth in your child. The Whole Child encourages offering your child making choices whenever possible, and more importantly, respecting their decision.4 As you allow your child to decide on what they want, this helps them feel confident and, in turn, make for confident leaders of tomorrow.
Additionally, when you take the time to explain reasons behind certain decisions or rules, rather than answering them with a full stop like, “That’s just how it is,” or, “I make the rules,” this helps your child understand the reasoning behind the functioning of the world. Yes, some rules may be harder to explain because you may not even know why. That’s okay, you can share your thoughts and feelings and help them understand it with you.
3. Assertiveness & Standing Up for Themselves
When a child feels confident in themselves, they are more likely to stand up to bullies and be more assertive.6 As they get older, they will be able to handle difficult situations on their own. The American SPCC adds that it is important that children become aware of their capabilities so that they will not fear failure or let negative thoughts and feelings hinder their judgment.2
4. Explore Emotions Together
The sooner a child begins to understand and learn about their emotions, the sooner they can express themselves. You can’t help how you feel, but you can help how you act on your feelings.7 Children are not born with emotional regulation, and as their parent you have to share that it is okay to feel sad or angry sometimes. You can even share age-appropriate stories of times when you felt sad or angry. Disney’s Inside Out is a great movie to help get the conversation started.
5. Mindful of Words & Actions
The way you respect and praise your child matters. Avera states, “make eye contact and let your child see and hear delight, pride, enthusiasm and love in your face, tone and words.”7 When you cultivate an environment that is supportive of your child this shows them that you are present and engaged in what you are sharing with them.
This also speaks to your own internal dialogue. Children are constantly observing you, whether you want them to or not. Practice saying positive affirmations to yourself daily. Incorporate affirmations into your daily routine, when you wake up and get ready for the day, and at night when you’re saying goodnight to your little ones.
6. Model & Show How-To
Aside from encouraging kids to try new challenges on their own, include them in daily tasks and activities. Take time to show them how to do certain things, despite the potential mess. Kids Health shares when you teach kids how to do things, this gives them a chance to learn and feel proud of themselves.8 When you’re a good role model for your children, and put effort into mundane everyday tasks, your child learns to put effort into their own less favorable activities.
t a certain age, children are excited to help you and want to be involved. The more you encourage this, the more it continues as they grow older. Stirring ingredients, sweeping, even helping to carry light things into the house can be small ways that your child can help and feel proud of the accomplishment. Don’t forget to give them specific praise of how well they executed the task.
7. Opportunities for Independence
You want to encourage children to be as independent as they can be, and as a parent or caregiver you should try to allow children to have opportunities where they are the ones in control. Harboring a sense of control helps a child feel empowered and gain competence, therefore feeling good about themselves.
The more opportunities that children have to achieve competence and feel good about themselves, the higher chance of success in adulthood.4 As a parent, provide your child with challenges that are not too difficult or way above skill level. Encourage them to practice and try things more than once. Use plenty of creative activities that support self-expression. Allow your child to interact with similar-aged peers and help them to find ways to connect and build friendships.
Opportunities are also a great way to reframe when your child makes a mistake and helps them learn from their blunders. Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author and co-author of Positive Discipline calls reframing mistakes as the “Three Rs of Recovery.” Recognize, reconcile and resolve: This teaches children ways to shift from focusing on their mistakes, and move forward by finding solutions or what to do differently in the future.9
8. Detailed Praise & Recognition
Praise is one of the most common and effective ways to build childrens’ self-esteem, however, there must be limits. American SPCC encourages you to be specific in the praise to your children, as opposed to telling them they did a “good job.” Hearing a general praise of “good job” without detailed recognition loses its impact rather quickly.2 Always remember that honest recognition and sincere praise is authentic and comes from the heart, drawing attention to something specific the child has done.
Children may begin to depend on this generalized praise and enthusiasm so that it becomes difficult to find motivation without it.1 Generalized praise, such as “Good job!” or “You’re incredible!” does not highlight the child’s capabilities and self-doubt may start to creep in.1 Research has shown that when raised with generalized praise, children that score low on self-esteem tend to choose easier tasks over more challenging ones.3
9. Unconditional Love
Your love is not determined or defined by how successful or athletic your child is, and certainly not by how they’re making you feel at a given moment. American SPCC reminds parents that it’s “not about what they do, but who they are.”2 With this reminder, children develop self-love and, in turn, develop self-esteem.
Parents should reassure their children that they are loved, even when setting boundaries or helping their child understand what they did wrong.6 Explaining to a child what was wrong about their behavior and reinforcing an appropriate consequence, helps keep the child from internalizing the feelings that they, themselves, are bad. At the end of the day, remind your children that no matter what, you love them.
For Further Reading
For more information on children’s mental health and self-esteem, check out the following resources:
- Child Mind Institute
- The Society for Research in Child Development – Origins of Childrens’ Self-Views
- The Over-Praise Prevention Plan
- Art Therapy for Children & Teens: How It Works, Examples, & Effectiveness
Building a Child’s Self-Esteem Infographics