9 ways to build your child’s self-esteem (and avoid later mental health problems)
Parenting Pod
Shares

9 ways to build your child’s self-esteem (and avoid later mental health problems)

Shares
Child Self Esteem

Did you know, as a parent, you are the main source of self-esteem for your child? [3]

The significant role in your child’s life probably comes as no surprise, but did you know the extent of that role?

The research tells us the first five years of a child’s life is critical in their emotional, psychological and physical development. What we didn’t know until recently, is that self-esteem is already an established concept in childhood. This means that children as young as five have a concept of how positive they feel about themselves and their overall ‘goodness.’ [1]

Positive self-esteem is a necessary resource in the development of mental health, emotional wellbeing, relationship functioning, and success.

Low self-esteem has been linked to increased risk of being the victim of bullying [3], and mental health conditions [2,3] in adolescence and adulthood.

Good self-esteem in children will help buffer them against negative life experiences. [2,3]

That’s why you have a crucial role in your child’s emotional development and how they learn to perceive themselves.

Fortunately, you have one amazing resource at hand:

Your relationship with your child.

We’ll look at practical strategies for fostering self-esteem in daily interactions with your child.

Why is it so important to foster self-esteem in children?

“The most basic task for one’s mental, emotional and social health, which begins in infancy and continues until one dies, is the construction of his/ her positive self-esteem.” Macdonald, 1994, p.191 [7]

In the early childhood and school years, positive self-esteem increases a child’s confidence and contributes to academic success. [2]

Similarly, children with higher self-esteem are also more likely to have higher cognitive competencies and better job satisfaction in middle-age. [2]

Also, self-esteem has been known to enrich an individual’s coping capacity when faced with stressful experiences such as physical health conditions, disease and recovery after an operation. [2]

Long-term outcomes:

  • Mental wellbeing: Decreased risk of mental health issues
  • Adjustment: Increased capacity to cope with change
  • Happiness: Positive outlook and general welfare
  • Success: Increased academic and occupational success
  • Satisfaction: In relationships, work and life

Low self-esteem and poor mental health

The wealth of research into mental health conditions identifies one common component: Self-esteem.

In the past fifteen years, research indicates self-esteem is an important psychological concept that contributes to emotional wellbeing, physical health, and quality of life. [2]

Positive self-esteem is a protective factor against the impact of stressful life experiences. [2]

Self-esteem is the top predictor of contentment while low self-esteem plays a serious role in the development of various mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

It is also a factor in social problems such as high-risk behaviors and substance abuse. [2]

The research is, however, a little unclear when it comes to causality, but it does suggest that self-esteem is not only a cause of mental health conditions but also a consequence of them too. [2]

Self-esteem is linked to internalizing disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. [2,3]

Depression

Low self-esteem is a predictor of depression, and individuals with depression tend to have low self-esteem. They often experience negative or insecure ideas about themselves. [2]

Longitudinal studies have indicated low self-esteem in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood is a crucial predictor of depression in later adulthood. [2]

Low self-esteem is also a risk factor for suicidality and self-harming behavior. [3]

Anxiety

Individuals with anxiety tend to lack trust in themselves and have difficulties handling daily problems. It’s no surprise that low self-esteem is a risk factor for anxiety and adjustment disorders in adolescence and adulthood. [2,3]

Highly anxious children tend to have low levels of self-esteem. [2] Interestingly, interventions that have aimed to increase self-esteem in anxious adults have found a decrease in overall anxiety. [2]

Eating Disorders

In childhood and adolescence; weight, body image, and dieting behavior become interconnected with identity formation. There is considerable evidence that finds a connection between low self-esteem as a risk factor for eating disorders, particularly in girls. [2,3]

Low self-esteem usually involves unhappiness with the self and may be associated with physical appearance and parts of the body. [3]

So, what actually is self-esteem?

We know that self-esteem is an essential psychological resource and there’s a strong desire to improve it. But what is it? [3]

Definition

Self-esteem is the“sense of personal worth and ability that is fundamental to an individual’s identity.” [6]

Self-esteem describes the way people feel about themselves. It’s how we evaluate ourselves on a cognitive and affective level. [2]

Self-esteem begins in infancy and early childhood

From the day your baby is born (perhaps even earlier!), the foundation for self-esteem begins. A person’s feeling of worth and self-competence starts in our very first relationship, our primary caregivers.

Children who have experienced a secure attachment with their primary caregiver (affection, nurturance and positive feedback) are more likely to develop positive self-esteem. [3]

As expected, the research tells us abuse and neglect perpetrated by a parent has a devastating and lasting impact on self-esteem development. Child sexual abuse is by far the most detrimental to a child’s self-esteem. [3]

How is self-esteem measured?

The Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale (RSE, 1965) is one of the original and most widely used measures of self-esteem. Suitable for adults and adolescents, it is simple to complete and consists of just ten self-rated, scaled opinion statements. [5] Self-esteem is measured differently in children and requires further research. [1]

We encourage you to use this scale to reflect on your level of self-esteem. You can model positive self-esteem to your children by avoiding self-criticism.

The scale can be completed and scored here: https://www.wwnorton.com/college/psych/psychsci/media/rosenberg.htm

A score below 15 is suggestive of low self-esteem.

What influences self-esteem?

Many psychosocial factors influence the development of self-esteem during childhood and adolescence [2]

Factors that lead to good self-esteem

Children who have good self-esteem tend to have the following protective factors:

  • Approval from parents and peers
  • Secure attachment (unconditional love and support from parents)
  • Self-perceived competence

Factors that lead to low self-esteem

The following factors have been identified as risk factors for low self-esteem: [2]

  • A maternal history of depression- A mother with depression is less likely to be emotionally available to her infant/child
  • Negative parenting practices- Punitive parenting practices
  • Early childhood maltreatment- Childhood abuse and neglect
  • Negative feedback from significant others- Verbal abuse and put-downs
  • Family discord and disruption- Divorce, separation
  • Exposure to stressful life events

Remember, negative feedback and withholding love and affection is harmful to a child’s self-esteem. [3]

The role of the parent in self-esteem [3]

Coopersmith (1967) was one of the first researchers to find a clear link between the role of parents and the development of a child’s self-esteem. His findings indicate that children will have higher self-esteem if their parents:

  • Accept and approve of their child (this more so than any other quality)
  • Show affection
  • Clear behavioral expectations (age-appropriate rules)
  • Correct behavior through explanation and validation of feelings (rather than control and coercion)
  • Have open communication with their child
  • Provide regular positive feedback to their child
  • Encourage their child to express their feelings
  • Encourage their child to contribute to family decision-making

Subsequent research has validated Coopersmith’s findings. Some research suggests the support and approval of a mother are more important to sons, whereas the approval of a father is more important to daughters.

It is widely understood that peer approval increases in significance and influence in adolescence, but parents’ opinions can carry weight well into the adult years.

How to build your child’s self-esteem

You can instill positive self-esteem by taking opportunities to provide positive feedback and improve your communication with your child. Here are nine practical strategies to try at home:

1. Delight in your child (for who they are not what they can do) [8]

Children need to know that you love them, no matter what. They need you to delight in them, for no other reason other than for who they are. Delighting in them for who they are, not what they can do.

It can be as simple as a shared smile, affectionate gestures, or telling your child you love them. When your child looks into your face and sees how you see them, it gives them a sense of feeling worthy, loved and special.

These moments may be subtle but they are powerful in engraining a sense of self-worth in your child.

Through delighting in your child, you show them you accept them for who they are. This unconditional love is the foundation for secure attachment and trust.

2. Put failures in perspective

Help your child understand failure in the big scheme of things. Praise the effort they put in and help them think of ways they can try to do things differently next time.

Identify and validate their feelings. You may want to protect your children from negative feelings, but disappointment and frustration are part of life. Help them deal with these emotions, by helping them understand them.

Put words to your child’s feelings. “Oh, you’re feeling disappointed in yourself that you didn’t win the game.” Sit with your child in this feeling, so they feel understood. It may not take the feeling away (which is not the aim), but they will feel understood, heard and most importantly, not alone.

3. Encourage your child to problem solve

When your child gets frustrated with a puzzle or a toy, is your first instinct to swoop in and fix the problem for them? What underlying message does this send to your child? It tells them you don’t believe in them or that they are not capable of doing the task themselves.

Validate your child’s feelings. “I know it’s frustrating when that piece won’t go in.”

You can encourage initiative and a sense of competence by offering just enough support for your child to complete a task on their own. “I wonder if you tried turning the piece around the other way, how would that look?”

4. Let your child make decisions

Your child will gain a sense of competence and feel good about themselves when they are trusted to make their own decisions.

Give age-appropriate choices. For toddlers start with two options, “do you want to wear the red top or the blue top today?”

Even if the choice is non-negotiable, you can provide your child with some element of control. “You can walk to your bed on your own, or I can carry you.” The underlying message here is this: either way it is bedtime, how you get there is up to you. When given this choice, children are more likely to cooperate than if you were to scoop them up as they kick and scream.

5. Give your child a sense of responsibility

Clear and positive expectations are key. Give your child age-appropriate responsibilities around the house.

A two-year-old may help scoop the dog biscuits into the bowl; a three-year-old may bring their clothes to the washing basket, a four-year-old may be able to wash the dishes.

A sense of responsibility will make your child feel important and give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment- especially when followed up by positive feedback and encouragement. Provide positive feedback, even if they haven’t done the task quite the way you would do it.

6. Praise for making an effort

Children love to be praised, but it’s not as simple as saying “good work, buddy!” or “that’s a good girl.” Praise is when you tell your child what you like about his or her behavior. Also known as positive feedback, praise is most effective when it is specific and genuine. You can focus on the effort and the qualities your child displays when they behave in particular ways. Here are some examples:

  • You were so brave to go down the slide on your own today
  • You’re really concentrating on that puzzle
  • You are so patient when you tie up your shoes
  • It was really kind when you gave your brother a hug when he was upset
  • That was really helpful when you put the dishes in the sink
  • I know you didn’t win the game, but you worked so hard today and you didn’t give up

Praise nourishes a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. When you bring attention to a behavior (especially if it’s one you want to promote!), then your child will feel good about themselves and will want to do more of that particular behavior.

You can also give your child praise for making an effort, not the end result. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work out, at least they’ve given it a go. Whether it’s doing a puzzle, sorting out the washing or playing a soccer game, these are all opportunities to provide positive feedback for giving it a go, regardless of the outcome. Helping your child to cope with smaller disappointments and frustrations, will build their capacity to deal with more stressful situations as they get older.

7. Avoid assigning labels (negative and positive)

When you label a child ‘naughty’ or ‘shy,’ their behaviors become aligned, and even defined, by them. Positive or negative labels are not helpful, because children will find it difficult to behave outside of these expectations.

8. Validate your child’s feelings (avoid dismissive language)

Avoid telling your child “you’re okay” or “don’t worry about it” as it is dismissive of their feelings. It can make them feel as though the emotion they’re experiencing is wrong.

Try to identify the feeling and reflect it back to them (even if you’re not sure, you can guess!). “Oh, I know you’re disappointed that your friend couldn’t come to your party…” Stay with them in this feeling, rather than moving into distraction or reassurance.

9. Play together

Make time to be physically and emotionally present for your child. Emotional availability is essential for a secure, quality relationship between you and your child. When you make time for your child, you show you’re interested in them as a person and what they like to do.

Conclusion

You are the most important source of self-esteem for your child, particularly in the first five years of their life. You can provide positive feedback to your child through acceptance and approval, taking an interest, being fair, having clear and positive expectations, and listening to your child. [3]

The responsibility of being a parent can be overwhelming. You may come to the end of this article and find you are reflecting on your relationship with your child. Thinking about what you’re already doing well, and perhaps some of the areas where you could improve.

The fact that you’re reading this article, shows how invested you are in your relationship with your child. So, even if you haven’t been doing all of the suggestions we’ve listed, taking the time to reflect on the quality of your interactions will make a big difference.

Remember, it is never too late to improve your relationship with your child!

References

  1. Cvencek, D, Greenwald, A.G., & Meltzoffe, A.N. (2016). Implicit measures for preschool children confirm self-esteem’s role in maintaining a balanced identity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 62, 50-57. Retrieved: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103115001250
  2. Mann, M., Hosman., C.M.H., Schaalma, H.P., & de Vries, N.K. (2004). Self-esteem in a broad-spectrum approach for mental health promotion. Health Education Research, 19 (4), 357-372. Retrieved: https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyg041
  3. Emler, N. (2001). Self-Esteem: The costs and causes of low self-worth. Youth Studies Australia. Retrieved: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/30530126_Self_esteem_The_costs_and_causes_of_low_self_worth
  4. Coopersmith, S. (1967) The Antecedents of Self- esteem. San Francisco, CA: W.H. Freeman, as cited in Emler, N. (2001). Self-Esteem: The costs and causes of low self-worth. Youth Studies Australia.
  5. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica (2018). Retrieved: https://www.britannica.com/science/self-esteem
  7. Macdonald, G. (1994). Self-esteem and the promotion of mental health. In Trent, D., and Reed, C. (eds), Promotion of Mental Health. Avebury, Aldershot, vol. 3, pp. 19–20.
  8. Cooper., G, Hoffman., K, Marvin., B, and Powell, B. (2004). Travelling around the circle of security. Circle of Security International. Retrieved: https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/userfiles/Downloadable%20Handouts/COS_travelingaroundCOS.pdf

 

About the Author Lauren Keegan, Registered Psychologist

Lauren Keegan is a psychologist with a special interest in perinatal and infant mental health. She has over 10 years of clinical experience working with parents. When Lauren isn’t working or writing she’s building Lego towers with her toddler and practicing the fine art of negotiation.

Leave a Comment: