How to boost your child’s self esteem
Self esteem in children is something that parents ask me about frequently. And as a mum myself, I understand why. Hearing your child say they’re stupid, or watching their face drop when they struggle to understand something, is heartbreaking. You just know they’re feeling awful about themselves. That they think they’re not good enough. You might try offering them praise. Telling them how wonderful they are, or how much you love them. But you know they don’t believe you. So what can you do to boost your child’s self esteem? After all, you know your child is amazing, you just need them to know it too!
What is self esteem?
To understand how to help a child develop healthy self esteem, we first need to understand what we’re talking about. Self esteem is the way we feel about ourselves. Most of us know that. But do you also know that self esteem has two components? Yep: personal value, and competency. Personal value is about how worthy or important we believe we are. Competency refers to how capable we feel and how much we believe we have the ability to affect our world.
How does self esteem develop?
Healthy self esteem requires a child to feel both worthy, AND capable. Self worth comes from the understanding that you are loved unconditionally, and that you belong. Create a warm, welcoming home, filled with affection and love, and you’re halfway there. Feeling competent and capable comes from the knowledge that you can do things, and that these things can have an impact on your environment.
So how do you help your child feel competent? Well, it’s not enough to be told that you’re good at something. You have to learn it. For yourself. As parents and teachers, it is not our job to heap praise on kids and tell them they are wonderful. This just doesn’t work. It is our job to set children up for success. To create an environment in which a child can learn, practise, and subsequently, master skills. This leads them to believe that they are capable. They need opportunities to demonstrate those skills in order to reach a goal. This helps them to understand that they can exert some control over their world.
Tips to boost your child’s self esteem:
So how do we do this? Here are 10 tips to help you boost your child’s self esteem. Some of them might surprise you!
1. Meet your child’s need for undivided attention.
Put your phone away, close the laptop, switch off the TV, put down your book, turn off the podcast you’re listening to. Put aside some time for one-on-one activities, free from distractions. This could be a special date, a snuggle before bed, playing a board game, going for a walk, or chatting about your day on the way home from school.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. It doesn’t even need to last long. But regularly freeing up some special time that is just for your child, lets them know that they are special. It says to your child: you are important, you are valued and I love you more than all this other ‘stuff’.
2. Ditch the praise.
No, that’s not a typo. Let’s think about this one for a moment. What do phrases like, “Good job”, “Great work”, or “Well done”, actually mean? Not a great deal on their own, really. What did they do a good job of? Which part of their work was great? What did they do well? When children are praised frequently, using this kind of language, it becomes sort of like background noise. They drown it out. It becomes meaningless. It’s just something you always say, and after a while they stop believing you.
So what can you do instead? Try being more specific.
- Offer encouragement rather than praise. Encouragement looks more like this: “Wow, look at all the colours you used in that picture!”, or “Check out that clean room!”.
- Simply say what you see: “I noticed you picked up all the toys without me asking!”
- Point out an admirable personal quality they’ve demonstrated: “You shared your toy with your friend, that was very kind!” or “It’s really helpful when you put your clothes straight into the laundry basket”.
- Try praising their effort rather than the end result: “That looks like it took a lot of hard work”, or “I love the way you didn’t give up even though that was hard for you.”
- And sometimes, when we say good job, what we actually mean is, thank you: “Thank you for your help setting the table.” or “I really appreciate your help with the dishes tonight.”
These phrases mean so much more than, “good job” and tell your child exactly what they did well, why they’re appreciated and what you’re proud of them for.
3. Let them make age appropriate decisions.
Allow your child some control over their life. Let them choose their outfit for the day. Provide two possible dinner options and let them pick their favourite. Do they want to go to the park or the library today? Which book will we read tonight? Will we go to the post office before or after we have lunch? Will they do their homework when they get home from school or after dinner?
These are all decisions that are unlikely to have a significant impact on you or your day, but will be hugely beneficial for your child’s sense of worth. Allowing them to make decisions teaches them that they are capable, and says, I trust you – you do this your way.
4. Avoid labels. Even the “good” ones.
Bad labels are bad, yes? Telling your child that they’re lazy, or dumb, or a slow learner? Probably no-nos. But what about, “You’re smart”? Or, “You’re an overachiever”? Or even, “You’re always so kind”? What’s the problem with these, you ask? Well, good labels can put a lot of pressure on kids. They feel the need to live up to them. They can feel disappointed or ashamed if they do something that’s not “smart”. It challenges the whole concept they have of themselves and makes them doubt their worth.
So ditch the labels. Your child is more than that label anyway. They are a human being with lots of different skills, who sometimes makes great choices, tries hard, and does things really well. And sometimes doesn’t. And that is absolutely fine.
5. Give them chores.
Giving a child responsibilities lets them know that you trust them and believe they are capable. It also sends the message that they are an important and valued member of the family. When everyone has a special role, the household functions smoothly – you wouldn’t be able to do it without them! Even very young children can have a special job, like helping to set the table, putting their dishes in the sink, taking dirty clothes to the laundry, or helping to water the plants. And what a sense of achievement it gives them once it’s done!
6. Avoid harsh criticism.
Criticising a child is hurtful. Blame and shame can make a child feel worthless and unimportant. This seems obvious, I know. But let me ask you this: do you sometimes find yourself saying things like, “How many times do I have to tell you…”, “What is wrong with you?”, or “Why would you do that?” I know these things sometimes come out of my mouth in the heat of the moment.
Be mindful of your language. Comments like this can make a child feel ashamed, which is the exact opposite of our goal! Be mindful also, of using sarcasm with small children – many haven’t yet developed the ability to recognise or understand sarcasm, so they may take your comment to heart.
7. Don’t rescue them.
Well, at least not right away! Let your child struggle sometimes. This is important for them to gain a sense of mastery. Let them experience hard things and get through them. When we jump in and rescue them, by doing things for them that they could have done themselves, we take away their opportunity to learn, and to experience a sense of accomplishment.
And if they don’t always succeed – which they won’t – they still learn an important lesson. They learn that it’s ok to make mistakes, to take risks, and to ask for help. Struggles help us learn about our own boundaries and limits. And learning to cope with failures is just as important to our sense of self, and our self esteem, as successes are. Teach your child that mistakes are learning opportunities. Use them to identify and set achievable goals. Goals that they would not have the chance to achieve if they hadn’t failed to begin with!
8. Don’t compare them to their siblings.
Or to anyone, for that matter. There’s simply no need. All children are unique, and pointing out how they don’t measure up to other kids makes them feel that they are not “enough”. Not good enough, not smart enough, not fast enough. Not enough as they are. Let them be themselves. Accept them as they are. This is the very definition of unconditional love, after all. Value them for their uniqueness and they will learn to do the same.
And again, be mindful of comparisons that may slip into your interactions without you realising. Things like, “When your sister was your age she could….” or “Your brother has cleaned his room, why haven’t you?”, or “Everyone else is ready for school, why are we still waiting for you?”, can slip out without us realising, and be more harmful than we think.
9. Help them pursue their interests and hobbies.
Nurture your child’s unique interests and talents. Doing things they enjoy makes them feel good. And learning how to get better at them is a great way to foster a sense of mastery and competence in your child.
10. Don’t criticise yourself.
Most importantly, model the behaviour you want to see in your child. Children learn by watching us. And they are always watching us. Don’t say negative things about yourself in front of your child. Better still, don’t say negative things about yourself at all. Show them what healthy self esteem looks like. Show them that it’s ok to make mistakes, that you’re not perfect. And that you love yourself anyway. Because that’s what healthy self esteem is, folks. It’s not believing that you’re a wonderful human being who is great at everything you do and has no flaws. It is knowing that you are imperfect, but liking yourself anyway, just the way you are.
Need some more help with your child’s self esteem? My Self Esteem Workbook for Children is jam packed with information, activities and worksheets designed to boost your child’s self esteem. Set them up for life by teaching them important skills to deal with emotions, challenge negative self talk and love themselves just as they are.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.