Many of us associate concepts like self-esteem or self-confidence with adulthood. But in reality, healthy self-esteem needs to be instilled in kids from a young age. Some studies even show that by age 5, children’s sense of self-esteem is already in place and its strength is comparable to that of adults!1 2 So if this is something you are mulling over for your child, “right away” is sure a good time to start!
Experts define self-esteem as “the value and respect you have for yourself.” It is essentially your opinion about yourself.3 Children who have positive self-esteem feel good and secure about themselves and are proud of their abilities and talents. In turn, this paves the path for your child to form healthy relationships with other children and adults, succeed in school and extra-curricular activities, and feel positive overall. Now, who doesn’t want that for their kid? So let’s take a look at some ways in which you, as the parent, can build your child’s self-esteem.
1. Be There For Them
This sounds simple and easy, but you’d be surprised how many children experience low self-esteem simply because their parents are absent, physically and/or emotionally. Being there for your child doesn’t mean mere physical presence. For very young children, simply holding them and showing affection and saying you love them makes them feel loved, valued, and secure. When you show them affection, it also teaches them to express themselves freely and share their feelings with others – an important aspect of self-esteem. With older children, while you may not hug or kiss them as often, it is important to carve out time every day to talk to them, listen to them intently (without distractions like your phone), and demonstrate that their opinions or feelings matter to you.
2. Let Them Do Things For Themselves
Cut down on helicopter parenting with each year. From fending for themselves at the park to running errands, there’s much your child can do to figure things out for themselves. Let the tumbles and spills happen as long as your child is not in physical danger.
It’s easy for parents to always say “here, let me do it for you,” when their child is attempting to do something. It could be tying their shoelaces, making a sandwich, or setting/clearing the dinner table. It is easy to do it for them but it doesn’t do much for their self-esteem. Let your child try to do new things, fail, and try again. Kids are always trying to figure out the world around them and, in the process, their own identity. Swooping in and doing tasks for them can take away their sense of autonomy. When you let your child help around the house, do their chores, and learn new tasks, they are gaining new skills and becoming self-reliant. This, in turn, makes them more confident about their abilities.
3. Love Them Unconditionally Even As You Set Down Ground Rules
It is extremely important that your child knows that you will love them always, no matter what. Your love for your child should never be contingent on them getting good grades, excelling at sports, or demonstrating good behavior. And your child needs to know that even when they make mistakes, they can always come to you and you will still love them. This does not mean you don’t discipline your child when they are misbehaving. But when they act out, throw a tantrum, or disobey house rules, focus on the behavior that was wrong instead of saying that they’ve been “bad.” It is important to separate the child from the undesirable behavior. Carefully explain why their behavior is not acceptable, give them an appropriate consequence, but make sure they know that you still love them. This gives them security, stability and comfort, and, in turn, enhances their self-worth.
4. Watch What You Say
When disciplining your child, choose your words carefully. Saying things like “what’s wrong with you?” “you make me so mad,” “stop crying,” “that’s not a big deal,” “why are you so (insert negative trait)?” “boys don’t cry,” “I hate it when you (insert bad behavior),” “shame on you,” “why can’t you be more like_______” etc. (you get the drift) can do irreparable damage to your child’s self-esteem. Be very careful about what you say and how you say it because they will remember it for a long time even if you don’t. Disciplining your child should not damage their sense of self-worth. Never minimize their feelings with your words either. Their problems may be small to you, but to them they are ginormous!
5. Acknowledge And Praise When It’s Due – But Make Sure It Is Descriptive Praise
Encourage your child to pick up new hobbies and interests. Over time, through trial and error, your child will develop a better understanding of their natural talents, and also recognize that they are gifted individuals who can become successful if they work hard.
When your child demonstrates good behavior or succeeds at something, it is crucial to praise them generously. This obviously makes them feel good, but it also shows them that you notice their successes. Even when your child fails at something, it is important to acknowledge their effort and to tell them that you are proud of how hard they worked. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to make them complacent or arrogant. Studies show that when children receive praise for their effort, they feel valued and secure, and their confidence and sense of independence grows.4
However, when you praise, make sure it’s not evaluative but descriptive. The distinction is crucial. Evaluative praise (e.g., “you are so kind/generous”) can build a need for approval in your child, making them dependent on your judgment, instead of evaluating for themselves what they did right. With descriptive praise, on the other hand, you describe in detail what your child did that was praiseworthy so that they understand it, learn to evaluate themselves, and accept the praise.5 So, instead of “you are so kind/generous,” you could say “it was really nice of you to sit next to the new kid in class today so she wouldn’t feel alone.” This way, your child understands how their action helped someone else, thereby understanding their accomplishment. The idea is not for them to please or impress you but to understand their own strengths.
6. Talk About Self-Control
Help your child build their sense of self-control. You won’t be there with them every minute of the day, so they need to be able to think through things, check their impulses, and make their own decisions, even at a very young age. Talk to them about options they have when their self-control is being tested. This could be something as simple as being tempted by a cookie before dinner or feeling emotions like anger or the need to lash out when they are pulled or pushed in the park. You can also teach your child to “self-talk” so they can weigh their options or even give themselves a pep talk. When they develop this ability, it works wonders for their self-worth – knowing that they’ve got what it takes to navigate their own worlds and the choices that come with it.6
7. Use These Quick But Effective Strategies To Build Self-Esteem
- Let your child occasionally “overhear” you talking about them in a proud and positive way to someone else. Be specific about what they did or said that made you proud as a parent. Seeing you “brag” about them to another person works wonders for your child’s self-esteem. This is a sneaky little trick but it works!
- Every once in a while, have your child stand in front of a mirror and list five things they like about themselves – this could be physical traits, style, personality, talents, accomplishments etc. This helps your child focus on what they like about themselves, further helping them believe that they deserve to feel good about themselves.
- Be a good role model. At least until a certain age, your child believes everything you say and will try to imitate what you do. If you engage in negative self-talk, you normalize that for your child, too. Don’t be too harsh or critical of yourself in front of your child. Be kind to yourself and model a positive outlook on life, and your child will learn to do the same.
- Never compare your child to anyone else. This makes them feel like they’re not good enough or that you’re disappointed in them, both of which can damage self-esteem and leave a lasting impact.
- When talking to teenage kids, persistence is key. They may want to shut you out or pretend that they don’t care, but they do. So it’s important to keep talking to them and invite them to share their feelings and opinions with you. Encourage their creative pursuits, support their goals, and ask them about what their goals in life. Show an interest in their lives and emphasize the importance of making good life choices.7
Strong Self-Esteem Has Long-Term Benefits For Your Child
A positive self-image, when instilled early, helps your child in numerous ways as they grow up. At varying ages, it can help them resist peer pressure, deal with failure and rejection, stand up to bullying, accept disagreement, express themselves and ask questions without fear, take on new challenges, make their partners feel valued, and expect the same for themselves. Overall, healthy self-esteem helps make your children become more emotionally resilient at any age. This means they will be able to better deal with the stress and uncertainty that life will inevitably bring. It also makes them more likely to be able to solve problems independently but also be vulnerable and humble enough to ask for help when they need it.
|↑1||Cvencek, Dario, Anthony G. Greenwald, and Andrew N. Meltzoff. “Implicit measures for preschool children confirm self-esteem’s role in maintaining a balanced identity.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 62 (2016): 50-57.p|
|↑2||Children’s self-esteem already established by age 5, new study finds. The University of Washington.|
|↑3||Self-esteem and self-confidence. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.|
|↑4||Building Your Child’s Self-Esteem. Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.|
|↑5||Praise that Builds a Child’s Self-Esteem. The University of Minnesota.|
|↑6, ↑7||Self-Esteem in Children. North Carolina State University.|