Before we talk about helping kids to develop healthy self-esteem, we need to know what self-esteem is. According to Merriam-Webster, self esteem is defined as "1. A confidence and satisfaction in oneself. 2. Self-respect."
This is quite different than self-confidence, which involves a person valuing their own abilities. You can have self-confidence and still have low self-esteem. Trust me, I lived this way for decades. During my second year of residency, I realized that I was a pretty darn good physician. And I have worked hard to become a great physician. But for many years, I still thought that I was fat, stupid and unworthy of love. Even when I was saving lives.
Having a healthy self-esteem means valuing yourself. You are important. You matter!
And unfortunately my friends, you cannot truly foster healthy self-esteem in your children until you yourself develop healthy self-esteem. Pretending to have a healthy level of self-esteem when you actually don't will only teach your child to pretend to be something that they are not.
I have spent countless hours in therapy and have read dozens of books about self-esteem in my lifetime. I hate that I have to write this, but friend, it is going to take a lot more than this post to help you develop a healthy self-esteem. You have to find out what works for you. The path to having a healthy self-esteem is different for everyone. You need to stop avoiding unpleasant circumstances. You need to focus on you. I am no expert, but I don't want you to feel alone. Please feel free to contact me for suggestions. But you are going to have to forge your own path to feeling self-worth.
So parents, while you are working on yourselves, here are some signs of a healthy self esteem (these apply to both your and your child):
- the ability to perceive personal strengths and weaknesses, and acceptance of these
strengths and weaknesses (knowing that you can work on the weaknesses)
- the ability to say "no"
- an overall positive outlook on life
- the ability to express your needs
- feeling proud of your accomplishments
These are signs of low self-esteem (again apply to you and your child):
- focusing on your weaknesses and failures
- inability to say "no"
- an overall negative outlook on life
- lack of self-confidence
- being overly self-critical
The path to developing a healthy self-esteem starts in infancy. Infants need to feel loved, accepted and safe. Once this happens, infants and toddlers will develop the confidence to learn new skills. As a parent, you can help by paying attention, smiling, and giving praise.
When a toddler is learning a new skill, it is okay to demonstrate the skill and to help them. Then let them try it own their own. Be patient. It is okay if they make mistakes because this is how they learn. Never criticize those mistakes!
As your toddler moves into the school-age and teenage years, there are other things that you can do to help your child foster a positive self-esteem:
- Praise the efforts, not the outcome!
-what truly matters is the work that your child put into the task, not the end result.
- if you praise the outcome, your child will learn what matters is if they
perform well or not. If they do not perform well, they will feel like a failure. And
then they may feel that your love is conditional, based on whether they are
performing to meet your expectations. Kids need unconditional love.
- Do not overpraise!
- if you tell your child that they are the smartest, best, most awesome person on
the planet, they will be confused as to why they do not hit a home-run every time
they are up to bat in T-ball.
- over-praise does more harm than good
- You have to be realistic with your kids
- Let your child take age-appropriate risks, makes choices, and live with the
- my son went through a phase where he did not like to wear a winter coat. So I
let him go to daycare without one. He learned pretty quickly why winter coats
- challenges and failures will actually serve to build self esteem
- if you try to protect your child from the world, you are doing them a disservice.
Kids need to understand the way in which the world actually works. Which
means that that need to try and fail at times.
-Never, EVER put yourself or your child down!
- words can cause wounds. NEVER call yourself or your child lazy, stupid, fat,
worthless, a retard, dumb, bipolar, etc.
- if your child hears you or your partner call each other names, they will start to
call themselves or others those same names.
- so here is an absolute rule: name calling is absolutely off limits!
- Help you child set goals within their ability level
- if your child is a white belt in karate, help them set white belt goals, not black
black belt goals.
- if your child is struggling with their spelling words, it does no good to tell them
that they are awesome at spelling. Gently acknowledge their strengths, and
help them navigate their weaknesses. Ask your child's teacher for suggestions.
- do not expect your child to be the next NFL first round draft pick, or the next
MLB superstar. Your high schooler needs reasonable expectations, not the
promise of unrealistic goals.
- encourage your child to work hard towards their goals, but NEVER promise an
- Let your child see that what they do matters to others
- as a family, volunteer at a homeless shelter. Let your child see that not
everyone has a roof over their head, or food on their table. Let them see that
serving a hot meal to others makes a difference in someone's life.
- encourage your child to choose toys that they no longer play with, in order to
donate to a charitable organization.
Unfortunately, there will be many people in your child's life who will try to break them down. It may be a bully who is jealous. It may be a parent who is addicted to drugs, and in and out of that child's life. Regardless of those influences, the overall thought process that your child needs to believe is that they are important and that they matter.
And above all, remind your child that they are a good person-even when they have bad behavior. Do not equate bad behavior with being a bad person- keep that distinction very evident to your child. Praise them intentionally on a daily basis.
Kids are amazing! And they deserve to feel that way!