4 Ways to Help Your Kids Build Self-Esteem
As a parent, you have a significant impact on your child’s self-esteem. When they are criticized, excluded, or fall short, they turn to you to know how to respond. Will they take things personally and give up? Or will they respond with resilience and confidence? Whether they ask you directly or simply watch how you act, they are quick to observe and adopt your behaviors.
What are you doing to foster your child’s self-esteem?
Children with high self-esteem have a higher sense of overall well-being and demonstrate higher levels of emotional intelligence. They have higher self-regard, show more interest and curiosity, and are more likely to assume challenge. Children with higher self-esteem also deal with their emotions in healthier ways; they are less likely to turn to anger, aggression, or shame, and are less likely to develop anxiety or depression.
High self-esteem not only acts as a protection for your kids, but also a catalyst to all aspects of their development.
Here’s how you can help.
Give Real Feedback
Say your child played badly in his first soccer game or was out after the first round of the spelling bee. How do you respond? Sometimes parents want to shield their children from mistakes and failure. For whatever reason, we feel uncomfortable watching our children perform poorly, receive criticism, or just outright fail.
However, in order to help them maintain and grow in confidence, we have to be okay sitting in that discomfort.
Parents who aren’t often create a sense of illusion for their kids by shielding them from consequences, even if that consequence is simply accepting that they didn’t do well. If a parent responds to a poorly played soccer game with, “You were the best one on the field!” the child is likely to develop a totally false sense of reality. If he’s not truly aware of his performance, how can he improve?
The lesson? Give your kids real feedback. Be honest with them.
If they bring you an essay to review, don’t give it back to them and say it’s perfect. Give them constructive criticism. This will teach your children how to receive feedback and that feedback isn’t bad—it’s actually good! One study found that kids whose parents gave them realistic feedback had higher GPAs and were less likely to show depressive symptoms. It’s hard and uncomfortable to be honest with our kids sometimes, but it’s not mean.
Realistic feedback, when given well, is one of the kindest things you can offer your kids.
In order for you to buy into this, you yourself have to understand that how your child performs doesn’t diminish their worth. If your son gets a C on a math test, it doesn’t mean he’s stupid. If your daughter doesn’t score a goal in her soccer game, she’s not a bad athlete. We all have room for improvement, and if you can help your child adopt the view that mistakes and failures are opportunities for growth, their self-confidence is sure to take an upward trajectory.
Research has proven that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to praise our kids—ways that can boost their confidence, and ways that can damage it. Most parents have adopted a “praise as much as you can” mindset, but this can actually be detrimental to children’s growth and, eventually, how they feel about themselves.
So how do you praise your children effectively?
Don’t overpraise, avoid comparing them to others, and don’t praise them when they don’t perform well. Focus on praising your children for their efforts, rather than for every easy task they accomplish. Be mindful of how you praise and how often you praise, and pay attention to how your child responds.
Ultimately, we want to raise our kids to be intrinsically motivated—not motivated by approval, power, or external reward. You can help them by praising well.
Kids with high self-esteem have their eyes on improvement. They care less about competing with their peers for superiority and more about improving themselves. You can encourage this as a parent by emphasizing effort and improvement instead of ability and perfect performance.
When your child won the science fair, did you reinforce the idea that he won because he is smart (a personality trait), or did you congratulate him on his hard work and creativity (his effort)?
When parents focus on praising effort, children are more likely to adopt a growth mindset.
They respond better to failure, embrace challenges, and show more persistence. So don’t demand perfection, instead, encourage effort. Your child can learn to love working towards a goal, even if it doesn’t lead to immediate achievement.
Research often refers to unconditional love as “unconditional regard,” and just as you’d expect, children whose parents express unconditional regard have higher, more stable levels of self-esteem. These children are less fearful of making mistakes because they believe that their relationships won’t be compromised when they do. They have higher self-regard and understand that ultimately, failure, and even success, does not define them.
They recognize that they are loved and valued despite their mistakes and shortcomings.
Loving your child unconditionally means that you separate her from her behaviors. You don’t let the way she acts determine how much you love her—you just love her. This doesn’t mean you tolerate or love all of her behaviors. Your love for her drives you to set appropriate boundaries, but when they are crossed, you don’t withdraw your love. Because we all make countless mistakes everyday—including disappointing the people we love—we all need to be the recipients of unconditional love.
Offering this to your child is a sure way to help build their self-esteem.
Ultimately, your child is in charge of his own self-esteem. His self-esteem depends on the way he views and feels about himself. Your job as his parent is to give him the tools to develop self-esteem and create an environment of warmth and encouragement. As you do your part, you can help your child build self-esteem through failure and success.
Brummelman, Eddie, and Constantine Sedikides. “Raising Children With High Self‐Esteem (But Not Narcissism).” Child Development Perspectives, 2020, doi:10.1111/cdep.12362.
Henderlong, Jennifer, and Mark R. Lepper. “The Effects of Praise on Children's Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 128, no. 5, 2002, pp. 774–795., doi:10.1037/0033-2909.128.5.774.