Kids today face a variety of pressures that can wreak havoc on their self-esteem. As parents, it’s never easy to see a child struggling with feelings of inadequacy. But we can help our kids build a healthy self-esteem, giving them the confidence to navigate all kinds of situations they will encounter throughout their lives.
A positive sense of self is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. Children with high self-esteem feel loved and competent and develop into happy, productive people. I see a lot of parents looking for the right things to say and do to help their kids with this. Building their kids’ self-esteem can start when they are babies and develops slowly over time. Parents and caregivers play an integral role in this.
Self-esteem is basically how children see themselves, which includes what they think of themselves and their ability to do things on their own. It starts as early as infancy as a child starts to feel safe, loved and accepted, and continues as they grow. It's shaped by how kids are supported and hopefully encouraged by important people in their lives, including parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches and instructors, to name a few.
Having healthy self-esteem and being self-assured does not mean overvaluing one’s self or believing one’s needs are above others. Similarly, healthy self-esteem is not arrogance or a sense of entitlement. The ways you help your kids develop healthy self-esteem will set the stage for building other important skills like empathy, problem solving and self-sufficiency.
You can do little things to help build your child’s self-esteem, helping your child’s development. Here are just a few ways to help your child build self-esteem, but there are many that you probably already have in your parenting tool box.
Ban harsh criticism: Negative messages kids hear about themselves can translate into how they feel about themselves. While their actions can be frustrating, using harsh words can be more harmful than helpful in accomplishing what you hoped for. If your child has shown a preference for video games (like so many kids!) over studying or tidying their room, don’t say, “You’re so lazy” to motivate them to put down the controller. Focus on what you want accomplished with patience. When necessary, especially with little ones, help show them how it can be done, whether it’s preparing for a test or cleaning a room.
Praise your kids sincerely: Praising your kids is not as simple as it sounds. Offer your children sincere praise for things they have done. It’s important to praise effort and not the result or qualities such as being smart or athletic. For example, if your child gets an A on a test for which they spent time to really prepare, try saying, “I’m so proud of the hard work you put in to get ready for your science test.” If your athletic child helps his or her team win a game, say, “You were a great teammate today” not, “I love that you scored four points.”
Be careful offering false praise. For example, if your child doesn’t play well in a game, don’t say, “Great game!” They know that it wasn’t and you don’t have to pretend it was. Try saying, “Tough one. We all have off days and I know better games are ahead.”
Build up strengths: As a parent, you are witness to what your child does well and enjoys. Find ways to focus on these strengths rather than point out weaknesses. Focusing on their strengths helps kids feel good about themselves and helps develop strong self-esteem. Another great outcome is it helps improve behavior. Kids like to feel good about themselves.
Don’t do everything for your child: This is a hard one, especially with little ones, but even as kids get older, too. Letting kids do things for themselves builds a number of skills — problem solving and resilience — which in turn builds self-esteem. For example, it may be painstaking to watch your 3-year-old get dressed by themselves, but they will feel a sense of accomplishment when it’s done. Challenge met and confidence boosted! Similarly with older kids, let them help around the house. Give them jobs such as making their lunch for school, folding laundry or walking the dog. It builds competency at taking care of themselves and problem solving skills by teaching time management — and this all builds self-esteem. Reminder, if these tasks aren’t done to your standards, be gentle. No harsh criticism.
Encourage service and charity: When kids help others, whether it’s a family member or outside the house, they see that what they do matters to others. Helping a sibling, doing a service project or a FaceTime call (or visit when it’s safe) to grandma and grandpa, goes a long way to building self-esteem and seeing the importance of helping one another.
Spend one-on-one time with your child: I love this one. Our lives are so busy, pulled in different directions with work, school and other activities that finding one-on-one time is beneficial to both parent and child. It can be as simple as taking a bike ride or walk, going out for ice cream or reading a book together. Finding alone time with your child is a great opportunity to talk about what is on your child’s mind. It’s also great to share with your child things from your day. Spending time like this lets your child know you’re there for them, boosts confidence and builds the bond between parent and child.
Bottom line, there is not one right way to build your child’s self-esteem. Supporting your children, giving them responsibilities and encouraging helping one another will lay the foundation for healthy self-esteem. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, please reach out to your child’s pediatrician who will have resources to help your child live a happy and healthy life.