Behavioral Health

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Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem

Sometimes it's easy to notice when kids seem to feel good about themselves — and when they don't. We often describe this idea of feeling good about ourselves as "self-esteem." 

Kids who have healthy self-esteem tend to:

  • feel valued and accepted
  • feel confident that they can do what's expected
  • feel proud of a job well done
  • think good things about themselves
  • feel prepared for everyday challenges

Kids with low self-esteem often: 

  • feel self-critical and are hard on themselves
  • feel insecure, or not as good as other kids
  • focus on the times they fail rather than the times they succeed
  • lack confidence
  • doubt their ability to do well at things

Why Self-Esteem Matters

When children feel good about themselves, it sets them up for success — in everything from school to friendships. Positive feelings like self-acceptance or self-confidence help kids try new challenges, cope with mistakes, and try again. Taking pride in their abilities and accomplishments helps kids do their best. 

By contrast, kids with low self-esteem might feel unsure of themselves. If they think others won't accept them, they may not participate as often. They may allow themselves to be treated poorly and have a hard time standing up for themselves. Kids who don't expect to do well may avoid challenges, give up easily, or be unable to bounce back from mistakes.

Having low self-esteem can block success. It can leave kids distracted by the stress of how to deal with everyday challenges. 

How Self-Esteem Develops

Contrary to what some might think, self-esteem does not come telling kids they're wonderful, special, and great (even though they are!). Giving every child a trophy doesn't help kids' self-esteem. Indeed, it's possible for kids to feel good about themselves even when they fail.

When children compete — win or lose — they see that their own hard work and practice can make a difference. Earning a prize contributes to self-esteem only when a kid knows he or she earned it.

Self-esteem is the result of experiences that help a child feel capable, effective, and accepted. 

  • When kids learn to do things for themselves and feel proud of what they can do, they feel capable. 
  • Children feel effective when they see that good things come from efforts like trying hard, getting close to a goal, or making progress. For example, kids who take part in a service project feel good about themselves when they see how their actions matter. 
  • When kids feel accepted and understood by a parent or someone close, they are likely to accept themselves, too. Their good feelings about themselves multiply as parents praise good behaviors, help when needed, and give encouragement and support. 

How Parents Can Nurture Self-Esteem

Self-esteem develops over time. And if it's low, it can be raised. Here are things parents can do:

  • Help your child learn to do things. At every age, there are new things for kids to learn. Even during babyhood, learning to hold a cup or taking first steps sparks a sense of mastery and delight. As your child grows, things like learning to dress, read, or ride a bike provide perfect opportunities for self-esteem to take root. 
  • When teaching kids how to do things, show and help them at first. Then let them do what they can, even if they make mistakes. Be sure your child has lots of opportunities to learn, try, and feel proud. Don't make new challenges too easy — or too hard.
  • Praise your child, but do it wisely. Of course, it's good to praise kids. Your praise is a way to show that you are proud, too. But research shows that some ways of praising kids can actually backfire. 

    Here's how to do it right:

    Avoid over-praising. Praise that doesn't feel earned doesn't ring true. For example, telling a child he played a great game when he knows he didn't feels hollow and fake. It's better to say, "I know that wasn't your best performance, but we all have off days. I'm proud of you for not giving up." Add a vote of confidence, "Tomorrow, you'll be back on your game." 

    Praise effort rather than fixed qualities. Avoid focusing praise on results (such as getting an A) or fixed qualities (such as being smart or athletic). This kind of praise can lead kids to avoid challenges that may threaten the good 'reputation' they get praised for most.

    Instead, offer most of your praise for effort, progress, and attitude. For example: "You're working hard on that project," or, "You're getting better and better at these spelling tests," or, "I'm proud of you for practicing piano — you've really stuck with it." This kind of praise encourages kids to put effort into things, work toward goals, and try. When kids do that, they are more likely to succeed.
  • Be a good role model. When you put effort into everyday tasks (like raking the leaves, making a meal, cleaning up the dishes, or washing the car), you're setting a good example. Your child learns to put effort into doing homework, cleaning up toys, or making the bed.

    Modeling the right attitude counts, too. When you do tasks cheerfully (or at least without grumbling or complaining), you teach your child to do the same. When you avoid rushing through chores and take pride in a job well done, you teach your child to do that, too. 
  • Ban harsh criticism. The messages kids hear about themselves from others easily translate into how they feel about themselves. Harsh words ("You're so lazy!") are harmful, not motivating. When kids absorb negative messages about themselves, they feel bad about themselves, and act accordingly. 
  • Focus on strengths. Pay attention to what your child does well and enjoys. Make sure your child has opportunities to develop these strengths. Nurturing strengths is better than focusing on weaknesses if you want to help kids feel good about themselves and succeed.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 28, 2016