Parenting Approaches to Foster Children’s Self-Esteem

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | January 30, 2013

Healthy self-esteem is like a child’s armor against the challenges of the world. Kids who feel generally good about themselves seem to have an easier time managing conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile more and have more friends. These kids are realistic and generally optimistic. In contrast, kids with low self-esteem often find challenges to be a source of major frustration and anxiety. Children who think poorly about themselves often have a hard time finding solutions to problems and immediately say, “I can’t do it.”

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem is a general feeling of self-worth, or how much a person values himself or herself. The development of self-esteem begins in childhood and includes both feeling capable and feeling loved. For example, a child who is happy with an achievement but does not feel loved may eventually experience low self-esteem. Likewise, a child who feels loved but is hesitant about his or her own abilities can also develop low self-esteem.

Experts agree that healthy self-esteem does not come from blindly believing you are the best. Rather, self-esteem a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. And, parental involvement is the key to helping kids form accurate, healthy self-perceptions.

Like adults, children can’t be good at everything. To help foster healthy development of self-esteem parents should refrain from expecting that their child will excel in everything that he or she does. Instead, parents can show encouragement and enjoyment in many areas of a child’s life and avoid focusing on one particular area. In addition, parents are encouraged to allow children the experience of failure. As kids try, fail, try again, fail again, and then finally succeed, they develop ideas about their own capabilities.

How to help foster self-esteem

A child’s self-esteem is fostered when he or she feels unconditionally loved and supported by their parents and caregivers. Because children value the approval of adults, they may look for rewards from outside sources instead of feeling proud from within. As a parent or caregiver who wants to recognize a child’s achievement, the approach you take becomes very important. The following strategies are developed to help guide you through these situations:

  • Try saying “You did it!” instead of “Good job”
    Phrases such as “you did it!” build a child’s self-esteem intrinsically. These terms hold more value to children and build their self-esteem within rather than using extrinsic rewards. The phrase “good job” and others like it keep children constantly looking for the approval of adults.
  • Try describing what you see and asking questions about the process instead of making subjective statements like “That is beautiful”
    For example, try saying “I see you used a lot of blue in your picture,” or “It looks like it really makes you happy,” and asking questions like “How did you make it?” Because children are constantly looking for the approval of adults, we want them to focus on their ideas and feelings rather than doing things to please others. Try asking a child: “Do YOU like it?”
  • Use warmth and empathy to help children learn more about themselves
    When dealing with disappointments, be truthful with children, yet use empathy to show that you still love and care about them – no matter what. For example, if your child doesn’t make the soccer team, avoid saying something like, “Well, next time you’ll work harder and make it.” Instead, try, “Well, you didn’t make the team, but I’m really proud of the effort you put into it,” or, “It took courage to try-out, and I like that about you.”
  • Help children bust inaccurate views
    When experiencing frustration, some children may be quick to make cognitive generalizations about themselves such as “I’m a bad at school.” As adults, we have the capacity to help children realize the inaccuracies of these statements and view things more objectively using reason. For example, you might say, “You are a good student. You do great in school and your teachers really like having you in class. Math is a subject that you need to spend more time on. So, we’ll work on that together.”
  • “Catch” your child being good
    Give praise to your child often and honestly, but without overdoing it. Having an inflated sense of self is not a good thing, either. Instead of spontaneously saying: “I think you’re terrific!” try catching your child being good when you see him or her doing something well. For example, “I can see you were very angry with your brother, but it was nice that you were able to talk about it instead of yelling or hitting.” This acknowledges a child’s feelings, rewards the choice made, and encourages the child to make the right choice again the next time.
  • Reduce conflict at home
    Children who are exposed to conflict at home, or high-conflict divorces are at-risk to internalize a sense of guilt. In addition, the child may develop a pattern of thinking that they have no control over their environment and begin to feel helpless. As a parent or caregiver, if you are finding that you have a tendency to be harsh on yourself, or pessimistic about your abilities, your kids might eventually mirror your attitude. By paying attention to your mental health and taking the steps necessary to nurture your own self-esteem you will become a positive role model for your child.

If you suspect that your child has low self-esteem, consider making an appointment with a Psychologist. Child therapy can help identify the source of low self-esteem (bullying, comparing, oneself to an older sibling, etc.), develop coping strategies to deal with problems better, and more realistically develop a sense of competence.

Get our latest articles sent directly to your inbox!