Our role as parents surely is the biggest responsibility we are bestowed on in this life?
Raising entirely dependent, helpless babes to independent, functioning adults is a huge task that we can’t tackle alone. We need a tribe – of partners, parents, friends and community to come alongside us as we try to gently raise our offspring to become just like us (in all the good things) and nothing like us (in all the bad!)
Gifting our kids with a quiet inner confidence is a vital part of this transformative work. Whether we are building confidence in toddlers or self-esteem in teens, as parents we constantly need to remember that our children are learning from us every day, in every way!
Good self-esteem comes from knowing that you’re loved and accepted unconditionally and that you have value.
Your child’s self-esteem will be determined by success and progress in four areas. As the parent you need to emphasise, recognise and reinforce all four areas!
- Social (how easily they make friends, how much they are accepted by their peers, etc.)
- Competence (how well they learn, how good they are at school work or specific skills, etc.)
- Physical (what they wear, how they look, how they do at sport, etc.)
- Character (how kind they are to others, how hard they try, etc.)
What causes negative self-esteem in children?
Low self-esteem can be created through negative messages such as “You are slow” which say something bad about the child as a person or those that imply that life would be better without them “If it weren’t for the children, we could afford a new car”.
Another way self-esteem is impacted is by parents who ignore their children, treat them as a nuisance or not taking any interest in them. Frowning or sighing all the time when your child wants to talk to you or ask you for something might have the same effect. All parents do this occasionally, but if you do it all the time your child will get the message that they are a nuisance to you. If a child does something you don’t like, it’s better to tell them what they could do instead.
Negative comparisons with other children, especially siblings, are also unlikely to be helpful in boosting a child’s self-esteem. Each child in your family is different, with individual strengths and weaknesses, rather choose to recognise each individual child’s achievements.
Too much praise can adversely affect self-esteem too. Telling your child he’s the best, the smartest or the most talented is setting him up for failure later in life and by telling your child they are already doing a fantastic job, you’re saying they no longer need to push themselves. Inaccurate praise confuses kids by coming across as lying.
What are the risks of negative self-esteem in children?
Kids with low self-esteem may not want to try new things and may speak negatively about themselves: “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never learn how to do this”.
They may exhibit a low tolerance for frustration, give up easily or wait for somebody to help them complete a task. They tend to be overly critical of, and easily disappointed in, themselves.
This can place kids at risk for stress and mental health problems in later life, as well as real difficulties solving problems and challenges they encounter.
What are the signs of negative self-esteem?
A child with low self-esteem will:
• avoid trying new things
• feel unloved and unwanted
• blame others for his own shortcomings
• feel, or pretend to feel, emotionally indifferent
• be unable to tolerate a normal level of frustration
• put down his own talents and abilities
• be easily influenced
• view temporary setbacks as permanent
• be pessimistic
A child who is happy with an achievement but does not feel loved may eventually experience low self-esteem. A child who feels loved but is hesitant about his or her own abilities can also develop low self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem comes when a good balance is maintained. Promote healthy self-esteem in kids by showing encouragement in many areas of their life, not just one aspect.
How to build healthy self-esteem in children
The groundwork for healthy self-esteem begins in the first few weeks of your child’s life when you handle your baby lovingly, respond when they cry and give lots of cuddles and smiles as this will tell your baby that she is loved and lovable.
Once your child gets into the pre-school and primary school years these are the things that you can do to help boost their self-esteem…
There’s a difference between praise and encouragement. One rewards the task while the other rewards the person (“You did it!” rather than “I’m proud of you!”). Praise can make a child feel that they are only “good” if they do something perfectly. Encouragement acknowledges the effort. Too much praise can sap self-esteem because it can create pressure to perform and set up a continual need for approval from others. Rather offer encouragement liberally.
Acknowledge the good things your child does every day within their earshot.
Let your child know that you see her as clever, special and valued.
Give unconditional love. A child’s self-esteem flourishes with the kind of no-strings-attached devotion that says, “I love you, no matter who you are or what you do.” Your child benefits the most when you accept him for who he is regardless of his strengths, difficulties, temperament, or abilities.
Praise them for good social behaviour such as learning to share.
Give them balanced feedback such as “I think you’re the best four-year-old painter I know!” This allows them to feel pride in themselves, but sends them the message that other people are important and can do things well too.
Carve out time to give your child your undivided attention. That does wonders for your child’s self-worth because it sends the message that you think they are important and valuable.
Listen with intent and make eye contact so it’s clear that you’re really listening to what they are saying. Your child needs to know that their thoughts and feelings matter.
Tell your child how much you love them – often!
Allow your child to make reasonable decisions (eg. what to have on their sandwich) which gives them a sense of control and helps to develop confidence.
Allow your child to say “no” occasionally.
Support healthy risks and encourage your child to explore something new, such as trying a different food, finding a new friend, or riding a bike. Though there’s always the possibility of failure, but without risk there’s little opportunity for success.
Let your child safely experiment, and resist the urge to intervene. For instance, try not to “rescue” him if he’s showing mild frustration at figuring out a new toy. Even jumping in to say, “I’ll do it” can foster dependence and diminish your child’s confidence.
Build self-esteem by balancing your need to protect with their need to tackle a new task.
Let mistakes happen as these are valuable lessons to build your child’s confidence. Acknowledging and recovering from your own mistakes sends a powerful message to your child and it makes it easier for your child to accept his own shortcomings.
Give them access to a mirror so they can discover what they look like and what there body can do.
Establish reasonable rules for your child. For instance, if you tell your child he has to eat his snack in the kitchen, don’t let him wander around the family room with his crackers and fruit the next day. Knowing that certain family rules are set in stone will help your child feel more secure. It may take constant repetition on your part, but he’ll start to live by your expectations soon enough. Be clear and consistent.
Teach children to change their demands to preferences. Point out to children that there is no reason they must get everything they want and that they need not feel angry either.
Encourage them to work against anger by setting a good example and by reinforcing them when they display appropriate irritation rather than anger.
When you do have to correct your child, make it clear that it is the behaviour — not the child — that’s unacceptable. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re a naughty boy! Why can’t you be good?” say, “Pushing Gabriel isn’t nice. It can hurt. Please don’t push.”
Encourage your children to ask for what they want assertively, pointing out that there is no guarantee that they will get it. Reinforce them for asking and avoid anticipating their desires.
Confidence comes from trying and failing and trying again – with better results!
Accept your child’s emotions without judgment, validate their feelings and show that you value what they have to say.
Share your own feelings to encourage your child to express theirs.
Let children know they create and are responsible for any feeling they experience.
Help them realise they are not responsible for other peoples’ feelings – yours included! Avoid blaming children for how you feel.
Help your children develop “tease tolerance” by pointing out that some teasing can’t hurt. Help children learn how to cope with teasing by ignoring it while using positive self-talk such as “names can never hurt me,” “teases have no power over me,” and “if I can resist this tease, then I’m building emotional muscle.”
Help your children think in terms of alternative options and possibilities rather than depending upon one option for satisfaction. A child who has many friends and loses one, still has many.
Encourage your children to behave toward themselves the way they’d like their friends to behave toward them.
Help your child get comfortable with their emotions by labeling them. Say, “I understand you’re sad because you have to say goodbye to your friend.”
Offer empathy if your child gets frustrated because he can’t do things his peers can, then emphasize one of their strengths. This can help your child learn that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that no one is perfect.
Laugh with your children and encourage them to laugh at themselves. A good sense of humor and the ability to make light of life are important ingredients for increasing one’s overall enjoyment of life.
Encourage your children to develop hobbies and interests which give them pleasure and which they can pursue independently.
Let children settle their own disputes between siblings and friends.
Help children learn to focus on their strengths by pointing out to them all the things they can do.
Give unlimited amounts of hugs, cuddles, kisses and shoulder pats.
Even as adults sometimes we feel good about ourselves and sometimes we don’t. What we’re really trying to teach our kids is resilience!
And what should you avoid?
Resist comparisons at all costs. Once kids reach school they start to compare themselves with their friends and this can put a huge dent in their self-esteem. They might feel less capable than others for the first time and all the new rules and academic pressure can be a challenge for some children. Additionally comments from you such as “”Why can’t you be like Peter?” will just make your child feel bad about themself. Even positive comparisons, such as “You’re the best player” are potentially damaging because a child can find it hard to live up to this image.
So what should you do instead?
- Let your child know you appreciate their uniqueness rather than how they compare with others.
- Support your child with schoolwork and school life
- Maintain a good relationship with their teacher.
- Show an interest by asking what your child has done during the day and whether they need help with their homework.
- Focus on your child’s strengths, the effort they put in and for trying things they find difficult.
- Coach your child through tricky social situations and watch out for the signs of bullying, learning problems or other social difficulties that can affect your child’s self-esteem.
- Extra love and hugs plus one on one time will go a long way towards help your child maintain a good self-esteem despite the difficulties they face daily at school.
Your child’s self-esteem will be determined by the conditional acceptance that he receives from others – and the unconditional acceptance that he receives from you.
As parents we need to realise that to unconditionally love another, we need to be fully accepting of ourselves and our flaws first! If this is an area you struggle in be sure to also read this article on the essentials of good self esteem for adults.