Building your child’s self-esteem (and your own)!

Building your child’s self-esteem (and your own)!

Self-esteem is about having confidence and satisfaction in your abilities and can be very important to children. It can protect them from giving up or feeling really unhappy when things do not go their way. And it can allow them to bounce back when they don’t succeed at something they try. Children who have a negative view of themselves are less likely to try new things, to believe that they can succeed and may be less happy in general.

So how do you help children to build positive self-esteem? Surprisingly, it is not by just telling your child how great he or she is or by protecting her from ever feeling disappointed. In fact, your child needs to not succeed sometimes in order to develop healthy self-esteem. When your child fails at something, this provides a valuable opportunity to let her know you love her despite her struggles and gives you a chance to talk with her about how to try again.

Here are some specific tips for helping to build self-esteem:

  1. Praise your child’s specific actions (even when he doesn’t succeed). We all think that our children are great, but telling them that doesn’t actually help them to know HOW to be great. So when they do a good job (even if they don’t win the game or make the highest grade), talk to them about the effort. You could say “I really like the way that you worked so hard on those math problems and figured them out”, instead of saying “You are so smart”. When you praise actions, instead of general characteristics, you let children know WHAT to do in order to succeed. Next week we will have more information about how to praise your child.
  1. Let your child make her own decisions, when possible. Children need to learn how to make their own decisions and how to deal with the consequences of those decisions. So if there are things that are not safety issues, for example, deciding whether to wear a coat on a day that is not freezing, then let your child decide. If she chooses not to wear a coat and then feels cold, chances are she will make a different decision in the future. By learning what happens when she makes different kinds of choices, she can gain confidence in her abilities to make decisions.
  1. Let your child take reasonable risks. Again, within safe limits, letting your child take risks can help build his confidence. For example, if your child wants to try something that seems a little too hard for him, encourage him to try. When he was in first grade, my son wanted to enter his class talent show and tell jokes. He was a shy child so I worried about what would happen if the other children did not laugh. But he was sure that he wanted to do comedy. So I helped him pick out some jokes and on the day of the talent show, he got up and told them. It turned out that he had good timing. And the other children laughed! My son felt good about what he had done and gained confidence in talking to others. And I learned that he could do something I thought would be too hard for him. I told him that I was really proud of him for getting up in front of the whole class and talking (which is the same thing I would have said even if no one had laughed). To this day, he is really good at delivering funny one-liners.
  1. Give your child (reasonable) responsibilities. The best way for children to build confidence in themselves is to allow them to understand how much they can do. And to feel like they are contributing. So your daughter can help to set the table or your son can help to fold the laundry. Age-appropriate chores teach them that they can handle responsibilities. They may surprise you by asking for more!
  1. Help children to learn from and accept mistakes. If something does not go the way that your child planned, suppose she did not do as well on a test as she wanted to, talk about what she could do differently next time. Help her to problem-solve. And let her know that you have confidence that she will make the effort to improve.
  1. Let your child take pride in her accomplishments. Let your child know that you are proud of her for her accomplishments. And help her to celebrate them. If your daughter receives certificates or trophies, display them.

A note on pride: It is important to help your child value her own unique strengths and talents. But make sure to also help her understand that other children have talents, too, and that everyone’s unique strengths should be appreciated. Help her recognize that her accomplishments are special, but they don’t mean she is better than others.

7. Be a positive self-esteem role model. This can be hard for overtired, overworked parents to remember but the best way for a child to learn positive self-esteem is to see you show it. So instead of saying “I am overweight/not working hard enough/etc.”, model saying positive things about what you are doing, like “I am trying hard to exercise 5 times a week. Last week, I really worked at it and I ran 3 days in a row. That’s a great effort and I am sure that I will be able to do 5 days next week.” Think about your self-esteem as being a mirror for your child so you want to be as positive as possible!

The benefits of helping your child to build his self-esteem include helping him to become more confident, more willing to take risks, and more likely to try, try again if he doesn’t succeed. It could also help you, too. As you help your child to have more positive feelings about herself by modeling having positive feelings about yourself, you can improve your own outlook. What a great deal!


Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


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