Developing a Child’s Self-Esteem

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by Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD

When our kids have self-esteem, the world is an endless source of possibilities and potentiality for consistent happiness. Helping our kids develop confidence, and maintain it for life, is not as elusive as you might think.

There are many parenting strategies that contribute to raising ethical, successful, and confident kids. Bloom: Helping Children Blossom, which I co-authored with Dr. Lynne Kenney, highlights an approach which is the most promising way I know to raise incredible people.  It’s no secret that the sought-after qualities possessed by extraordinary young people belong to kids whose relationship with their parents provides a solid foundation from which to grow.

However, the things we commonly think might help boost our kids’ positive sense of self may actually backfire.  Here are ten steps to avoid to boost your child’s self-esteem:

Don’t constantly praise your child.

Sounds peculiar, doesn’t it?  Most of us have likely been raised to believe that praise helps build self-esteem. While it’s true that kids need positive feedback, a constant barrage of, “You’re so wonderful…you’re so smart…you’re the best soccer player,” does not help a child grow in confidence.  Instead, work towards praising specific things your child has done, regardless of the outcome.  Rather than saying, “Oh, you are the best artist.  I love how beautifully you draw,” try, “Wow!  This is so colorful!  You took so much time and care in drawing it.  Let’s find a place to hang it so we can look at it often!”  Notice the subtle difference here?  You are praising effort and not attaching any judgment as to whether or not you “like” what your child did.  Your child’s take-home message?  “I’m a hard worker.  I take great care in the things I do.  My mom (or dad) recognizes my effort.”  Okay, maybe your young child does not have the ability to verbalize it in that manner, but her heart will get the message loud and clear, by the feeling she derives from your specific praise.

Don’t orchestrate every waking minute for your child.

Allow your child to just “be.”  While it’s important to schedule play dates and activities to help your child gain essential social skills, it’s also important to give your child down time to explore and discover what suits her fancy.  It’s the silent moments, when kids are left to their own devices, that they discover the passions that make them truly unique.  Take your child’s lead and support the interests that she seems to gravitate naturally to.  It doesn’t have to be an organized activity at all.  It might be building castles in the sandbox, or climbing on playground structures that make your child’s heart sing.  Support those emerging interests.  You may be raising a future architect or search and rescue hero.

Don’t say, “Everything will be alright.”

It seems contradictory to everything we’ve been taught, and is probably a departure from how we were raised.  Having a soothing, parental figure’s assurance that all will be fine may not be as helpful as we think.  The truth is we cannot guarantee that everything will be okay in some situations.  It’s more helpful to validate the feeling and reassure your child that you will be available to help her.  “This is really hard right now.  I’m sorry your friend won’t play with you. Talking about it can help you feel better.”  The goal here is not to make everything tolerable for your child.  Rather, it is to help her learn how to process and best cope with difficult circumstances.

Don’t speak in a self-deprecating manner.

Your child is always watching and listening to you.  She takes her clue about how the world works by seeing how you conduct yourself.  Taking her cues from you, she will follow suit.  If you would like your child’s internal dialogue to be compassionate, kind and confident, be sure to model this.

Don’t wait on your child.

Being at your child’s beck and call is not the way to help her increase her self-esteem.  Doing things for your child that she could do for herself does nothing to assist her in developing a sense of efficacy.  Our goal is to raise independent kids who are able to care for themselves.  Kids feel more self-sufficient and capable when they are able to complete tasks and take care of themselves.

Don’t say, “Forget about it.”

When difficult times threaten to erode your child’s sense of self, instructing her to “forget about it” does nothing to help her build skills.  Instead, provide empathy, “This is frustrating for you,” or, “You are really sad about this.”  Ask, “What do you think might help?” and “How big is your sad?  Is it as big as you are?  Bigger?  Could it fill the room?  Could it push the roof off the house?  How do you think we can shrink it down?”  If your child truly has no input or ideas offer a few suggestions such as, “Some kids listen to music and move their bodies to help themselves, should we try that?” or, “Talking about the sad feelings might help them shrink down.  I’ll listen to whatever you want to say.”

Don’t throw in the towel.

When times are tough, don’t allow your child to hear you say, “I give up!  I‘ve had it!”  Pessimistic thinking is modeled just as sure as optimistic thinking is.  Your attitude is contagious, so think carefully about what you want your child to learn from you.

Don’t say, “Life isn’t always fair.”

While it may be true that life hands us some situations which are less than optimal, the important thing to focus on is that we can always choose how to think about those circumstances.  Rather than having your child hear you say, “This is horrible.  Life is not fair,” let her hear, “I am so frustrated about this, but I will figure out a way to deal with it.”  When she hits bumps in the road, let your ongoing message be, “Let’s figure this out.  What can we do about it?”

Don’t make your child’s life easy.

Challenges and adversity really do help us stretch our mental muscle, explore alternative options and encourage us to learn new coping skills.  Rushing in to rescue or fix problematic situations for your child doesn’t help her grow in the direction you may most desire.  Help your child learn to think for herself.

Don’t aim for perfectionism.

Create an atmosphere in which mistakes are embraced as the learning tool they are.  Practice this in your own life and convey to your child that mistakes provide us with information about what doesn’t work, so we can go back again and try a different way.

In Summation: Lead by Example

If you get the impression that how you live your own life has a huge bearing on how your child learns to live his, you are exactly right!  Modeling is critical.  Live your life well so your child will do the same.  Help him learn how to think and cope with tough times.  You will be helping to provide your child with fortitude and a can-do attitude that will last a lifetime.  Self-esteem is a byproduct of being “large and in charge” of our own lives, not something that is created artificially by others telling us how great we are.

Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD, is the mom of three and an award-winning child and family therapist and early childhood mental health consultant, with expertise in anger management, behavioral disorders, grief, and loss and trauma.  She is co-author of the book, Bloom: Helping Children Blossom, as well as other resources to help kids manage the tough stuff in life.  She is the founder of Kidlutions: Solutions for Kids, her happy place online, which caters to parents, educators and caregivers.


This article was originally published December 11, 2013


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