Building Self-Esteem in Children: What We Get Wrong and What Real Self-Esteem Looks Like
July 17, 2020
When we hear a child making negative, self-critical comments, our first instinct can be to rush in and contradict them. We try to reassure them and begin rolling off examples of their talents and beauty. But no matter how sincere or well-meaning our comments are, they almost never seem to sink in when a child is struggling with low self-esteem.
Research has shown that when you map self-esteem against age, you find self esteem rises slightly between the ages of 4 and 11, then remains stagnant from 11 to 15, increases markedly from 15 to 30 and then rises slowly to a peak at about 60 years old before tailing off slowly again past 70 and then dropping drastically past 90. So, depending on the age of the person whose self-esteem you are trying to build, you could find various barriers to that or indeed periods where it is easier to build. Take comfort in the fact that self-esteem will naturally improve throughout our life, sometimes children just need a bit of a helping hand to get things started.
Children and young people with high self-esteem often:
- Have a positive image of themselves.
- Are confident.
- Can make friends easily and are not anxious with new people.
- Can play in groups or on their own.
- Will try and solve problems on their own, but if not able to will ask for help.
- Can be proud of their achievements.
- Can admit mistakes and learn from them.
- Will try new things and adapt to change.
Children and young people with low self-esteem often:
- Have a negative image of themselves, they might feel bad, ugly, unlikeable or stupid.
- Lack confidence.
- Find it hard to make and keep friendships and may feel victimised by others.
- Feel lonely and isolated.
- Tend to avoid new things and find change hard.
- Can’t deal well with ‘failure’.
- Tend to put themselves down and might say things like “I’m stupid” or “I can’t do that”.
- Are not proud of what they achieve and always think they could have done better.
- Are constantly comparing themselves to their peers in a negative way.
It’s important to recognise the role that social media has, and continues to play, on self-esteem. Especially when it comes to body image. Many young people follow a large number of celebrity, or fitness/body inspiration accounts. Every time they open up an app like Instagram, they are confronted with images of people (often photoshopped or posed purely to accentuate certain attributes) that we deem ‘beautiful’ or attractive. They then compare themselves to this unrealistic, unattainable standard and inevitably come up short. As 99.9% of all of us would! Encourage children (or maybe yourself!) to evaluate the accounts that they follow. Does the content on your feed bring you joy? Does it add something to your day or teach you something? If the answer is no, consider unfollowing the accounts that you find negative. There are so many accounts and individuals that foster a positive environment and encourage self-acceptance, as well as offering helpful bits of advice, often from their own experiences. Even if its just an account that posts cute or funny pictures, try to follow more profiles that bring a little bit of joy to your feed.
Trying simply to protect a child and their self-esteem can sometimes backfire, setting them up for failure when someone or something contradicts the beliefs that you have tried so hard to instil in them. For example, if you tell someone repeatedly that they are really smart and talented, this can actually push them into avoidant behaviours when they are confronted with a difficult situation. Imagine a test that this person is nervous about, they may put off studying so that if they don’t do well on the test, they can convince themselves and others that this is because they didn’t have time to revise. We often do this subconsciously in order to try and protect the image we have created of ourselves.
A better area to focus on is to encourage them to engage fully with situations, task, challenges and interactions that they undertake. We’ll look more closely at ways to achieve this shortly.
The real key to increasing self-esteem is to move beyond focusing on oneself. Real self-esteem isn’t about believing that you are this incredibly special and wonderful person. Real self-esteem means letting go of that question; “Am I good enough?” And knowing that in fact yes, you are good enough. Don’t hold yourself to the standards of others. Compete with yourself.
So, how do we begin to move beyond the self-focus and harsh self-evaluation? Research shows that the key lies in addressing the fundamental needs of connection, competence and choice.
Connection involves building meaningful relationships that foster a sense of belonging.
Competence is about embracing learning and pursuing improvement.
Choice is allowing children to develop their own set of personal values and make decisions that reflect those.
Show your child lots of love and be positive about them as a person – tell them about the positive traits they possess that make them a loveable, rounded person.
Set an example of having a positive attitude when faced with challenges and using positive coping strategies to deal with stress/worry etc.
Let them know you value effort rather than perfection. Children can miss out on lots because they don’t try, because they are fixated on not ‘succeeding’.
Encourage them to try new challenges and celebrate them for it. Phrases like “Well done, that was hard, and you still managed it,” are good. Start with small, manageable challenges, and then increase the difficulty as you begin to feel more comfortable. The same as you would with any training, it’s about small steps and small improvements.
Help them set attainable goals and make plans for things they’d like to accomplish. Keeping track builds good feelings about each milestone achieved. It’s good to have both long- and short-term goals in order to highlight progress.
Let them know they should not be afraid to voice their ideas and opinions. It’s ok when people disagree, we all see things differently. Encourage discussion rather than just debate.
Give praise for their successes, and don’t focus on areas where they have not done so well. Get into the habit of asking them about three good things that they feel went well today. These could be things that they achieved, situations or challenges that they overcame or even just a positive comment that someone made towards them. Sometimes it can help to list those positives from each day.
Reassure them it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s all part of life and we all make them. Getting it wrong is not the end of the world, try to learn from those mistakes so you can improve next time you find yourself in the same situation.
If you are unhappy with their behaviour, tell them, but make clear that you still love them. Discuss with them why they behaved in that way, not to be confrontational, but simply to understand each other better.
Acknowledge their feelings and help them to express those feelings in words. For example, encourage them to say, “I’m upset because…” or “I feel happy when…”
Challenge them when they criticise themselves, so that they start saying things like, “I know this is difficult, but I also know that I possess the skills and strength to complete it,” instead of “I can’t do this”.
Help children discover and develop their talents, through clubs, groups and activities. Finding something they are good at provides a huge boost to their feelings of self-worth. Encourage them to express themselves creatively, through art, drama, writing or music. Even if they feel they aren’t ‘good’ it’s all about self-expression. Whatever they create is perfect.
Get them involved with voluntary or community projects that make a difference to someone else to develop a more positive opinion of themselves. Helping others almost always makes us feel better about ourselves.
Allocate 20 minutes each day or every couple of days, to chat, laugh, and do something together. Try to use this time not to talk to them as a parent to a child, but to a friend. Maybe choose a topic that you both interested in to discuss, come up with a quick art project to do together or individually and then compare. Even going for a short walk.
All of us, especially children, will have dips and variation in self-esteem as we go through life. Different stages of life, the challenges we face as well as a number of other factors will affect our confidence. But with support from parents and the support networks of friends and other social groups, children will almost always come through these periods.