Healthy self-esteem is a child's armor against the
challenges of the world. Kids who 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passive, withdrawn, or depressed.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 is "I can't."
Here's how you can play important role in promoting
healthy self-esteem in your child.
What Is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is the collection of beliefs or feelings we have
about ourselves, our "self-perceptions." How we
define ourselves influences our motivations, attitudes, and
behaviors and affects our emotional adjustment.
Patterns of self-esteem start very early in life. For example, a
toddler who reaches a milestone experiences a sense of
accomplishment that bolsters self-esteem. Learning to roll over
after dozens of unsuccessful attempts teaches a baby a
The concept of success following persistence starts early. As
kids try, fail, try again, fail again, and then finally succeed,
they develop ideas about their own capabilities. At the same time,
they're creating a self-concept based on interactions with
other people. This is why parental involvement is key to helping
kids form accurate, healthy self-perceptions.
Self-esteem also can be defined as feelings of capability
combined with feelings of being loved. 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 end up with low
self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem comes when the right balance is
Signs of Unhealthy and Healthy Self-Esteem
Self-esteem fluctuates as kids grow. It's frequently changed
and fine-tuned, because it is affected by a child's experiences
and new perceptions. So it helps to be aware of the signs of both
healthy and unhealthy self-esteem.
Kids with low self-esteem may not want to try new things,
and may frequently speak negatively about themselves: "I'm
stupid," "I'll never learn how to do this," or
"What's the point? Nobody cares about me anyway."
They may exhibit a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily
or waiting for somebody else to take over. They tend to be overly
critical of and easily disappointed in themselves. Kids with low
self-esteem see temporary setbacks as permanent, intolerable
conditions, and a sense of pessimism predominates.
Kids with healthy self-esteem tend to enjoy interacting
with others. They're comfortable in social settings and enjoys
group activities as well as independent pursuits. When challenges
arise, they can work toward finding solutions and voice
discontent without belittling themselves or others. For example,
rather than saying, "I'm an idiot," a child with
healthy self-esteem says, "I don't understand this."
They know their strengths and weaknesses, and accept them. A sense
of optimism prevails.
How Parents Can Help
How can a parent help to foster healthy self-esteem in a child?
These tips can make a big difference:
Watch what you say.
Kids are very sensitive to parents' words. Remember to praise
your child not only for a job well done, but also for effort. But
be truthful. 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." Reward effort and
completion instead of outcome.
Be a positive role model.
If you're excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or
unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your child may
eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your
child will have a great role model.
Identify and redirect your child's inaccurate
It's important for parents to identify kids' irrational
beliefs about themselves, whether they're about perfection,
attractiveness, ability, or anything else. Helping kids set more
accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating themselves
will help them have a healthy self-concept. Inaccurate
perceptions of self can take root and become reality to kids. For
example, a child who does very well in school but struggles with
math may say, "I can't do math. I'm a bad
student." Not only is this a false generalization, it's
also a belief that will set the child up for failure. Encourage
kids to see a situation in its true light. A helpful response
might be: "You are a good student. You do great in school.
Math is just a subject that you need to spend more time on.
We'll work on it together."
Be spontaneous and affectionate.
Your love will go a long way to boost your child's
self-esteem. Give hugs and tell kids you're proud of them.
Pop a note in your child's lunchbox that reads, "I think
you're terrific!" Give praise frequently and honestly,
without overdoing it. Kids can tell whether something comes from
Give positive, accurate feedback.
Comments like "You always work yourself up into such a
frenzy!" will make kids feel like they have no control
over their outbursts. A better statement is, "You were
really mad at your brother. But I appreciate that you didn't
yell at him or hit him." This acknowledges a child's
feelings, rewards the choice made, and encourages the child to
make the right choice again next time.
Create a safe, loving home environment.
Kids who don't feel safe or are abused at home will suffer
immensely from low self-esteem. A child who is exposed to parents
who fight and argue repeatedly may become depressed and
withdrawn. Also watch for signs of abuse by others, problems in
school, trouble with peers, and other factors that may affect
kids' self-esteem. Deal with these issues sensitively but
swiftly. And always remember to respect your kids.
Help kids become involved in constructive
Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are
especially helpful in fostering self-esteem. For example,
mentoring programs in which an older child helps a younger one
learn to read can do wonders for both kids.
Finding Professional Help
If you suspect your child has low self-esteem, consider
professional help. Family and child counselors can work to uncover
underlying issues that prevent a child from feeling good about
himself or herself.
Therapy can help kids learn to view themselves and the
world positively. When kids see themselves in a more realistic
light, they can accept who they truly are.
With a little help, every child can develop healthy self-esteem
for a happier, more fulfilling life.
David V. Sheslow, PhD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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