Build Them Up: Self-Esteem And Children

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to the way a child thinks/feels about himself. Self esteem includes opinions and judgement about the kind of person he is, including his  abilities, strengths, character  traits and so on. Self-esteem is not fixed, and may change with events, circumstance, health and mood,over the course of a life-time, but the foundations on which self esteem rests upon are laid in childhood, and parenting is a huge contributing factor. Self-esteem forms the basis of a child own evaluation of his self-worth and self-value.

Why Is Self-Esteem So Important?

A child with solid foundations of high self esteem is more likely to hold positive beliefs about himself, and generally will see himself in a positive light. A child with low self-esteem twill often hold negative beliefs about himself. He may focus on what he feels are his weaknesses. This core evaluation of self-worth will effect him in every way possible, throughout his life. It will effect how he copes with the struggles life throws his way. It will effect his participation and enjoyment of life and relationships.

High self-esteem can act as a buffer to absorb the tribulations of life and help him bounce back. Kids with low self-esteem are at higher risk of mental health problems later on in life. A low self esteem can lead a child to make life choices that ultimately lead to his own unhappiness, because he does not believe he deserves any better, he does not think he is valuable and will make choices based on this grossly incorrect belief. 

“Healthy self-esteem is like a child’s armor against the challenges of the world. Kids who know their strengths and weaknesses and feel good about themselves seem to have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile more readily and enjoy life. These kids are realistic and generally optimistic. In contrast, kids with low self-esteem can find challenges to be sources of major anxiety and frustration. Those who think poorly of themselves have a hard time finding solutions to problems. If given to self-critical thoughts such as “I’m no good” or “I can’t do anything right,” they may become passive, withdrawn, or depressed. Faced with a new challenge, their immediate response might be “I can’t.”” –

How Can I Help Build High Self-Esteem In My Child?

1. Create a stable, loving and safe home environment

For the formative, most developmentally important years of your childs life, your home is his world. It is all he knows and will form part of the basis of his expectations/core-beliefs about the world. It MUST be free from all forms of violence, fear, threat, or abuse of any kind. Every child has a basic human right to live free from these very damaging things. A child whose basic needs (security/safety) are not met is unable to meet his psychological needs (eg self-esteem) and as a result is much more likely to be psychologically emotionally damaged. As a childs brain is still developing, these things are even more anhialating to a childs psyche than they are to an adults. Children who come from abusive families are much more likely to develop low self-esteem. Also be aware of potential bullying/threatening/damaging behavior outside the home (school/extended family etc).

2. Show Love and Listen

For the first few years, your child’s world-view is an extension of your own. If he knows you believe he is worthwhile, capable, lovable, he will believe he is too. Tell him you love him every day, show him with affection, and MOST importantly, with your time and attention. Even if it is only 20 special minutes a day, make time. Breakfast together in the mornings or a bedtime story at night…just a little part of the day when he has you undivided attention, every day (because he is worth it). Take an interest in the things/people that interest him (because he is interesting) , play with him in his world, go to his school plays, parents evenings etc (because he is cared about). Always, always listen to your child (because he thoughts are important and his feelings are valid) and believe him when he tells you something that is important to him (because if it is important to him, then it is, by definition, important).

3. Honest Praise

Always aknowlege your child’s effortsPraise them as often as you can, tell them what you are proud of in him, what you love about or admire in him, as often as you can. When he accomplishes something new, notice! Always be honest with praise (kids are not stupid!) – praise the effort, not the outcome, for example, if his team did not win, don’t just tell him that they might win next week, also praise the tackle he did, or the training he put in. Find new and spontaneous ways to praise your child (maybe a surprise trip to the park after school, an ice-lolly or a friend over to play). For older children, have a ‘reward scheme’, where their good efforts can be ‘saved up’ and eventually be rewarded with a coveted treat. Don’t ever compare your children to others, always notice and praise their own progress, their own efforts on their own personal development journey.


4Improve Your Own Self-Esteem

Be a positive role-model! A child who see’s his parent put him/herself down will adopt a similar outlook about himself. The little girl who see’s her mother constantly on the scales, hears “I’m fat” all the time, is likely to go on to develop problems relating to self image. Your childs self-esteem starts with you. If you feel your self esteem is low or you have other mental health problems, please check out the links for further help at the bottom of this page.

5. Criticize the Behavior, Not The Child

When you discipline your child, make sure always to be consistent, fair, firm and calm. Explain to your child what is expected, and what will happen if those expectations are not met, beforehand. Follow through, always. Instead of saying ” You’re naughty! You’re bad” try to address the behavior “It’s not nice to to push your friend, it will hurt her. How would you feel if she pushed you?”. Do not try to explain to a tantruming child. Remove him from harm and leave him in a safe calm place to calm down before trying to explain to him why his behavior was not a good choice. Children must know that even when their behavior is not desired, they are still as loved as ever. Love is unconditional.

6. Encourage Him To Try New, Skill/Age-Appropriate Things

A Childs self-esteem can be built by accomplishing something new, for example, riding his bike without stabilizers for the first time (after a few wobbly starts, of course!) can fill him with a tremendous sense of pride and achievement, reinforced, naturally, by your support and encouragement! However, if he attempts to do it before he is ready, not only could he injure himself, but the traumatic experience and feelings of failure disappointment will make it harder for him to try again. You are the best judge of your childs level of developmentEncourage him to try new things when you think they are appropriate, do not push him, take it slow and steady at his own pace, lots of encouraging words, support (for his efforts!) and praise. Listen to and validate your childs feelings (“It’s very tricky, i found it hard at first too”) Share your own experiences (“Mummy didn’t learn to tie her shoes/tell the time/ride her bike until she was 14! Daddy can’t sing to save his life!”). No-one gets it right every time, and no-one is great at everything, make sure your child always remembers the things that make him special. Encourage your child to learn from his mistakes and try again (“Do you think if you tried it with a different pencil, that would help?”)

7. Help Your Child To Develop Skills/Interests/Activities

It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s safe and your child enjoys it. Dancing, basketball, playing an instrument, writing; any skill that your child enjoys and can improve with effort, is very rewarding and will greatly improve their confidencesense of self, and self discipline. It doesn’t have to be expensive, ‘make and do craft days’ with cereal/egg boxes, loo roll, glitter and paint, baking, building ‘bases’ are all inexpensive confidence builders for children. Involve your children around the home, encourage them to help with the housework, shopping, gardening or cooking (age appropriate), feeling useful will help them to feel capable and good about themselves, and will help them accept the more mundane aspects of life later on.

8. Help Your Child To Develop Socially

If you can, from as younger age as possible, encourage your child to participate (at his own pace) in social activities. Take your child to baby massage, toddler groups, play school, parks, soft-play, family.friends houses, invite school friends over for tea etc. Encourage your child to join school clubs or other community projects (ALWAYS keep safety in mind, speak to other parents, get references, ask questions, meet the organizers  check out what happens at meetings and child protection procedures etc first), like girl guides/ boy scouts, or a school sports club, or band. All these things will help your child develop very important social skills such as compromiseassertiveness, compassion and conflict resolution (not to mention is great fun for him!), giving your child confidence as he grows up and finds himself in more complex social situations. Also, this will help foster a sense of community and a sense of belonging.

9. Think Before You Speak

NEVER tell your child he is stupid/lazy/useless/worthless or any thing else of a similar nature. Never laugh at your child (it’s good to laugh with him, not at him). Never tell your child he was a mistake, you wish he was never born or that he was dead. Do not expose your child to emotional, verbal or physical domestic abuse. Do not speak negatively about the child or the other parent around the child. 

No parent is perfect and everyone makes some mistakes. Learn to recognize patterns of behavior that lead you to act in a way you regret, and think of ways to diffuse or redirect the behavior. If all else fails, make sure the child is safe, and take a time out yourself. If everything is getting on top of you and you feel unable to cope, see links at the bottom of this note. Everyone needs extra support at sometime, and there is great strength shown in asking for it

10. Address False/Negative Beliefs Honestly Whilst Focusing On Positives

If your child holds a negative belief about himself, you must guide him to a more realistic, positive yet still honest belief. For example, your child might say “I didn’t get invited to Johns birthday party because nobody likes me”, to this you could say (with a big hug!) ” I know you are sad about not going to Johns party…” (validating his feelings) “…but John was only allowed to invite 5 of his friends, i bet it was hard for him to choose  Lots of people love you, you had lots of fun at Tom’s party last week and I thought we could invite Sarah to play after school on Tuesday if you like?”. This way you can honestly acknowledge how your child is feeling, whilst gently reminding him that the truth is he has lots of lovable qualities and is liked.

How Do I Recognize Signs Of Low Self-Esteem In My Child?

All children express themselves differently, and YOU are the best person to know what is ‘normal’ for your child, but there are some signs you can look out for that could help you recognize signs of a fluctuating self esteem in your child, so that you might help before it becomes a massive problem. These signs vary depending on age, and are only meant as indicators. Some kids may display none of these signs, others may display all of them, or totally different ones. This is meant only as a guide as a point of reference.

A child with low self-esteem may:

  • Be unwilling to participate in socail activities.
  • Be unwilling to try new things.
  • Be unwilling to make an effort at school and/or at home because he believes he will fail.
  • Make negative statements about himself ‘I’ll never do XXX’ ‘I’m rubbish’, ‘I can’t do it’ ‘What’s the point?’, ‘Noone cares about me.’ rather than tasks/situations (“this is quite a difficult task…”)
  • See temporary set-backs as permanent handicaps.
  • Be unusually/overly clingy/needy, unwilling to separate from comforts.
  • Need constant reassurance.
  • Be defensive and sensitive.
  • Self harm (eg ‘headbanging’/hair pulling – often in younger children, cutting/hitting/substance abuse/risky promiscuous behavior in teens).
  • Sudden changes in eating behaviors (starving/binnging).
  • ‘Attention seeking’ behaviors (really a cry for help), disruptive, difficult or overtly sexual behavior.

A child with high self-esteem may:

  • Be willing to try new things and participate in social activities.
  • Be comfortable in novel/social situations.
  • Be assertive when meeting their needs, without being clinging/overtly needy.
  • Be unafraid to act independently.
  • Express frustration without belittling himself or internalizing it (instead of saying ‘I’m stupid’ he will say ‘I don’t understand this’ when faced with a difficult task)
  • See temporary set-backs as challanges that can be overcome.
  • Enjoy social interaction.

Where Can I Get Further Help And Advice?

  • Trained professionals at Family Lives can offer you help with any problem related to parenting, without judgement. They have a helpline avaliable on 0808 800 2222
  • Tons of information relating to mental health at MIND. Information line: 0300 123 3393
  • Information from FamilyEducation about self-esteem in children.
  • The Samaritans are there to listen. For any problem, at any time 08457 90 90 90
  • Get help and advice about a wide range of issues from Childline and talk to a counselor online: 0800 1111 
  • The NSPCC Helpline is for adults concrned about a childs wellbeing: 0808 800 5000

Useful Articles

Download a parents guide to building body confidence in kids here. Aimed at 6-11 year olds the Body Image Parent Pack aims to help promote positive self-esteem among children, by encouraging parents and children to think critically about the images they see in the media and understand that they are aspirational and not necessarily achievable. This guide continues on the theme of the lesson which studied the portrayal of people in advertising and media and the different techniques used for digital enhancement/manipulation.

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