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Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem

Healthy self-esteem is an important part of 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, for children who have low self-esteem, challenges can become sources of major anxiety and frustration. Children who think poorly about their abilities have a hard time finding solutions to problems. The more they have self-critical thoughts and self-doubts, such as "I'm no good" or "I can't do anything right," the more likely they may become passive, withdrawn or depressed. Faced with a new challenge, their immediate response is "I can't." Read on to discover the important role you can play in promoting healthy self-esteem in your child.

Signs of Healthy and Unhealthy Self-Esteem
Self-esteem can be defined as a combination of feeling loved and capable. A child who is happy with his/her achievements but does not feel loved may eventually experience low self-esteem. Likewise, a child who feels loved but is hesitant about his/her own abilities can also end up feeling poorly about himself. Healthy self-esteem results when both aspects are achieved.

Self-esteem fluctuates as a child grows. It is frequently changed and fine-tuned, as it is affected by a child's experiences and new perceptions. It helps for parents to be aware of the signs of both healthy and unhealthy self-esteem.

A child who has healthy self-esteem tends to enjoy interacting with others. She's comfortable in social settings and enjoys group activities as well as independent pursuits. She's willing to pursue new interests. When challenges arise, she is able to work toward finding solutions. She voices discontent without belittling herself or others. For example, rather than saying, "I'm an idiot," she says, "I don't understand this." She knows her strengths and weaknesses, and accepts them. A sense of optimism prevails.

A child who has unhealthy self-esteem may not want to try new things. He frequently speaks negatively about himself, saying such things as, "I'm stupid," "I'll never learn how to do this," or "What's the point? Nobody cares about me anyway." He exhibits a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for someone else to take over. Children with low self-esteem see temporary setbacks as permanent and intolerable conditions, in part because these setbacks seem like a pattern to them. Children with low self-esteem may not expect much from others, such as invitations to do things together. A sense of pessimism predominates.

What Parents Can Do to Help
How can a parent help to foster healthy self-esteem in a child? Here are some tips that can make a big difference:

  • Watch what you say. Children are very sensitive to parents' words. Remember to praise your child not only for a job well done, but also for their 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, say something like, "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 are 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. If something bad happens, don't make general negative statements about others, such as, "People are mean" or "You can't count on anybody." Your child may not realize that your statements are stronger than how you really feel.
  • Identify and redirect your child's inaccurate beliefs. A child who is a good softball player, but strikes out sometimes may say, " I'm no good at softball. I always strike out." Not only is this a false generalization, it's also a belief that will set him up for failure. Encourage your child to see the situation in its true light. A helpful response might be, "You are a good softball player. You have a great throwing arm and run the bases really fast. You just need to spend more time on your swing. We'll work on it together."
  • Be spontaneous and affectionate with your child. Your love will go a long way to boost your child's self-esteem. Give her hugs. Tell her you're proud of her. Leave a note in her lunch box that reads, "I think you're terrific!" Give praise frequently and honestly, without overdoing it. Kids can tell whether something comes from the heart.
  • Give positive, accurate feedback. A comment such as, "You always eat too much," may cause a child to start believing it. A better statement is, "I noticed you snacked a lot after school today, but then you chose an apple for dessert tonight. That's one good way to make sure you don't eat too much." This encourages her to make a healthy choice again next time.
  • Help your child become involved in constructive experiences. 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 practice a favorite sport can do wonders for both children.
  • Consider professional help. If your child has low self-esteem, he or she may benefit from talking with a professional. Ask your child's doctor or your religious advisor for a referral to a therapist, clinical psychologist or mental health counselor who specializes in children's issues.

For information on psychology and self-esteem issues, go to the American Psychological Association's help center.

For kid-friendly information on self-esteem:
Self-Esteem and You!

Reviewed by the Scientific Advisory Panel, 2006