Building Self-Esteem in Children
Amy Billingsly, LMHP-R, CSAC
Today’s kids and teens face a completely different world than most of us grew up in, as some of my younger clients like to remind me (“Did you have phones when you were a kid?”). Kids and teens are daily inundated with images of perfection; yet, these images and expectations are vastly unrealistic. These unrealistic standards can have a negative impact on their self-esteem. The good news is there are some things you can do to help improve your child’s self-esteem.*
*When I use the word child, I’m referring to anyone under the age of 18, not just small children.
Praise the effort, not the outcome
Let’s be honest, in 10 years, it’s not going to matter what grade they made on their sixth grade math test. What matters is the effort and preparation they put into studying for the test. If your child doesn’t do well, but spent time studying and preparing, make sure to praise that. Praising their efforts will help them learn that their value isn’t from the outcome of something, which a lot of times they can’t control. If they make the soccer team, instead of telling them, “I’m so proud of you for making the team!” try saying something like, “I know you put a lot of effort into your tryout, and I’m so proud of you for that!”
Use positive self-talk
Positive self-talk in your own life makes a huge impact on your child’s self-esteem. If you’re struggling with low self-esteem, your child will notice. Sometimes people don’t even realize they have low self-esteem. It sneaks out in comments about your weight or how you look in that dress or this swimsuit. If you’re convinced your worth is based on a clothing size or how you measure up to your favorite actress or blogger, why should your child think differently about themselves? Start being mindful of those comments you make, and especially the thoughts you let run through your head. For every comment you make out loud, there are probably ten thoughts in the same vein running through your head. Start paying attention when you’re criticizing yourself, and start correcting yourself. Even if you have been guilty of negative self-talk, recognizing this and starting to change it can be a powerful example for your child. Instead of saying that you’re too fat and need to lose weight, change the conversation to say you want to be healthier. Making these changes and speaking positive self-talk around your children will teach them to do the same for themselves. If changing your self-talk feels impossible or you have no idea where to start, reach out to a counselor for help.
Having one-on-one time with a parent, both parents when possible, or other caregiver is so important for children and teens. This lets them have your undivided attention (no cell phones!), and helps solidify your relationship. It also helps reinforce that they matter and have value to you. This quality time could be taking your child to get dinner or ice cream, having a family game night, or going bowling. Make it something you and your child will enjoy. Also, it’s important that you and your child are able to interact and have a conversation.
When you’re having quality time, and any other time your child is trying to talk to you, make sure to actually listen to what they’re saying. One way you can show them you’re listening is by reflecting back what they said to you, essentially a summary of what they said. Make sure you pay just as much attention when they’re talking to you about something “small,” such as their favorite TV show. If you pay attention to the small things, they’re more likely to talk to you about the big things.
Encourage them to pursue their passions
If your child expresses an interest in a certain activity, encourage them to pursue it. Sometimes this can be difficult if kids don’t have the same interests as their parents or other siblings. For example, your family might be a sports family, but one of your kids is interested in theater. Encourage them to get involved in their school or community theater. Let them know it’s okay if their interests are different from yours or from their friends. Helping a child embrace their passions and abilities, even if they’re different, can go a long way in increasing self-esteem.
There are several different ways you can help boost your child’s self-esteem. Focusing your praise on their effort in a situation instead of the outcome, using positive self-talk with yourself, spending quality time with them and listening to them, and encouraging them to pursue the things they’re passionate about. These fairly simple ideas can make a big and long-lasting impact.
Included below are some links to other articles that will give you additional ideas on ways to improve self-esteem in children and teens. As a parent, relative, teacher, or family friend, you can have a huge impact on the way a young person sees themselves. What you say and do does make a difference.