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Self-Esteem In Childhood

Little girl looking out the window.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 08 Aug 2022
Published 24 Feb 2022

What is Self-Esteem in Childhood?

Self-esteem in childhood is your child’s confidence in who they are and what they can do.

Every child has moments in which they face challenges, peer pressure, or experience new things, and they may begin to lose confidence or question their self-worth. In a child’s life, there will be ups and downs. They will feel bad sometimes. 

As children grow, it is important for them to also feel safe, feel loved, and find success when faced with something new or hard. These experiences build confidence and self-esteem. When a child can learn to set realistic goals and expectations, make good decisions, and take responsibility if things go wrong, they can learn and grow in wisdom, confidence, and self-esteem.

Setting goals, taking on responsibility, and seeing things through leads to a job well done. A child needs to be able to picture success and know it when they see it. 

Let’s pretend for a minute that the goal is for your child to master ten spelling words, and success is getting all ten right on the quiz this Friday. Parents are wise to support a goal like this one but still expect your child to do the work. A child can then claim that achievement and feel better about spelling by setting a realistic expectation, working to do the task, and finding a measurable result. The self-statement could be “I’m a hard worker, and I try my best even when something is hard for me.”

The Top 10 Benefits of a High Self-Esteem in Children

  1. Handling setbacks: Children with high self-esteem can better tolerate minor setbacks and failures without losing confidence and motivation to keep trying. 
  1. Making good decisions: Kids with high self-esteem have good decision-making skills, and they are ready to put themselves out there with a new idea.
  1. Finding and creating good peer models and friends: Children with high self-esteem have an easier time finding good peer models and friends who care for and respect them. 
  1. Resisting peer pressure. People with higher self-esteem are better at forming friendships, keeping friendships, and managing peer pressures.  They are more resistant to taking on unreasonable body image expectations or succumbing to the pressure to try risky activities like underage drinking, drugs, or sneaking out of the house. 
  1. Standing up for themselves: Children with high self-esteem will not be afraid to stand up for themselves, express an unpopular opinion, and speak out for what they believe is right. 
  1. Developing a healthy identity: As teenagers grow up, they can begin to form a solid sense of self and an authentic identity. This process naturally leads to seeking out and even appreciating who they are, what they value, and who they want in their lives. 
  1. Having protective patterns for the teenage years: Teens tend to have an egocentric outlook on life, and they may take things more seriously and personally than they should. Having solid self-esteem is protective in the teen years. Even while experiencing typical growing pains, your child is more likely to feel confident in themselves, their skills, and achievements.
  1. Obtaining higher achievement: Research shows that optimists tend to believe their performance is better than it is. This positive outlook leads them to take more risks, practice more, not give up, and in the end, they ultimately perform as well as they think they can.
  1. Defining positive attributions: Children who believe that success is due to their own efforts tend to believe that setbacks are tolerable. They are able to attribute problems as temporary and not due to some deep flaw in themselves. Rather, they see themselves as people who make mistakes but also can find success if they put their minds to it.
  1. Freedom to fail: One of the best things about a healthy self-esteem is the freedom to fail. Some people refer to this as ‘falling forward.’ There is no real success in life without failure and setbacks. Children must have the freedom to try new things and the freedom to fail at those things. Teach your child to see what they can learn and gain from mistakes and challenges. Often, even young children can see how most challenges have hidden gifts. Children with a healthy self-esteem are able to be grateful for the learning and then move on to something else without regret.

Top 7 Signs of Low Self-Esteem in Children and Teens

It is normal to see some ebb and flow in children’s self-esteem. Usually, toddlers and preschoolers are pretty impressed with themselves. They may say things like, “I can run faster than anyone in the world!” That behavior is perfectly normal at this age. As children grow, they may start evaluating themselves against others and may have unrealistic expectations of their own abilities, leading to disappointment or lowered self-esteem.

1. Succumbing to peer pressure: Children with low self-esteem often find it harder to resist the pressure to try risky activities, such as underage drinking, drugs, and sneaking out of the house

2. Making unhealthy choices: Children with low self-esteem may make choices that lead to unhealthy habits, like self-harm, turning to drugs, or other addictions like overeating or binge dieting

3. Excessively self-criticizing: Children with low self-esteem may make negative self-statements that are broad and unfounded such as, “I’m the dumbest person in this class” or “everyone knows I am horrible at math”

4. Unfair Comparisons: Children with low self-esteem may compare themselves to other kids who are extremely good at a sport or activity due to years of previous experience. They may start a new activity and then quickly argue that the other kids are better at soccer, singing, or playing the violin. That may be true, but your child is not considering the fact that the other children put in a lot of effort to perform at that level

5. Poor Self-Reliance: Children with low self-esteem often expect parents to make things easy on them. They may rely on parents to walk them through homework, even when they know what to do. Kids who wait for adults to guide them will struggle with self-esteem because they start to believe they cannot do it on their own

6. Statements of inadequacy or a lack of worth: Children with low self-esteem may make negative self-statements frequently. They may say,  “I’m not good enough,” “I’m the worst,” “No one cares about me,” or “Everyone knows I am the worst reader in the class.”  Often, young children expect perfection or compare themselves unfairly to others. The best way to combat this is to offer comments like, “How do you know for sure?” or “Is that a fact?” Sometimes, they may realize that these negative self-statements are unfounded

7. Negative self-fulfilling prophecies: Children with low self-esteem may experience additional negativity. Unfortunately, some of these negative self-statements become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may make statements like, “See, I am horrible at math. I will surely fail the class.” They believe they cannot pass, do not apply adequate effort, and then they actually do fail. These self-fulfilling prophecies can be extremely damaging to self-esteem

How Healthy Self-Esteem Develops in Children

In healthy development, a child’s self-esteem will evolve and become more authentic and realistic. They will start to see that they are not naturally talented at everything they try. Although this is a long journey for any family, below are some key strategies parents can try to help their children improve in their self-esteem.

“In these efforts to improve your child’s self-esteem, be patient and persistent. This is not easy to do. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is your child’s self-esteem.”

The top three ideas presented here are: teaching your child to make positive attributions, being a good example, and providing meaningful feedback

Attribution theory: A crash course for parents

One important way to improve self-esteem is to understand what psychologists call ‘attribution theory.’ This theory proposes that people with a high self-esteem interpret failure experiences differently. 

“Unhappy people tend to attribute failures to global, unchangeable, and personal factors” [1]. 

Let’s imagine that your child failed a math test. We will talk through the different ‘attributions’ the child can make that will either contribute to or damage their self-esteem.

Specific vs. global – Happy people tend to see their failures as specific to the situation. 

  • A specific attribution would be, “That was a really hard test today. I will do better next time.” 
  • A global attribution would be, “Math tests are terrible. I hate math.” 

Changeable vs. unchangeable – Happy people with a positive self-esteem tend to see their failures as changeable events. 

  • A changeable attribution would be, “I didn’t do well on the test because I didn’t study enough.”
  • An unchangeable attribution would be, “That teacher sucks. That’s the worst class ever..”  

External vs. internal – Happy people tend to attribute failures to external factors. 

  • An external attribution would be, “Wow, that is a hard class. No one did well on that test.”
  • An internal attribution would be, “I am terrible at math. I always fail those tests.”

As you can read above, the same situation can lead to many different belief systems. The very same event, failing a math test, will lead some children to believe that they have made a terrible, irreversible mistake. Other children will think that this was a unique situation that could improve with more effort. It is important to understand the way your child is internalizing failure experiences.

Improving your child’s attribution style

When your child makes a mistake, let them face the consequences of that decision if it is safe to do so. Provide loving and direct coaching about overcoming the obstacle they are facing. 

Let’s pretend this time that your child is failing language arts because of missing assignments. 

First, sit down and ask what is happening. Listen to your child’s beliefs about the situation without showing anger. See what attribution style they are using from the list above. Can they be more specific, less personal, and more changeable in the way they see the situation?

Next, ask what support they may need. Your child may need you to hire a tutor, or they may need to attend after-school help. If it is due to organization, perhaps your child needs help getting organized, finding a quiet space in the house, or learning some study strategies. 

Last, they are still failing the class, talk about ideas for improving their grade without insulting who they are as a person. Stick to the skills needed, and stay away from insults and threats. If they fail and summer school is required, have them face that natural consequence with your support and encouragement. 

Be a good example

Model healthy coping: Sometimes, unexpected events may happen in your family that cause trauma or distress for your child. Teach your child how to handle setbacks. Children learn what is modeled to them.

For example, if you are getting a divorce, you can set a good example of how to handle stress. Share how you are feeling without blaming the other parent. Say, “I am feeling stressed today over money. We will be okay. I am creating a budget for our family to handle financial pressures.” 

Talk to your child about healthy coping skills. Let your child know that all feelings are okay. Teach your child that being able to sit with our feelings is one of the most important skills people can have. You might say something like, 

“Feelings are like the clouds in the sky. You can sit calmly and watch them change shape. The clouds may look scary or ominous or interesting. Get curious about what kind of clouds they are and where they are going. Then simply wait, and the feelings will pass.”

Remember, your child will learn how to handle stress by your modeling. Your job is not to protect your kids from every bad thing happening. Your job is to teach your child how to cope in a healthy way. 

To cope with anger, show them how you might go for a run, go for a drive and blast your music loudly, or call a friend to vent. If they see you yelling and breaking things, they are not seeing the role model you want to be for them. You are not perfect either so if you mess up, simply tell your child you made a mistake. Your child will see that you are doing your best to manage your anger and learn from your own challenges. 

To deal with their own anger, your child can hit a foam roller against their bed, sing a song, write poetry about their feelings, paint a picture, talk with you or a friend, go for a walk, journal, take deep breaths, or listen to a podcast. Let your child know that all of these activities are good options. 

Provide meaningful feedback

Provide specific and meaningful praise: providing feedback and helping your child accept input is important. Feedback is not always positive, but it can go a long way if positive feedback is provided often and with specific examples. Instead of praise like ‘You are so smart,’ try, ‘Wow! You have already learned all your multiplication tables! We should celebrate’.

Use the 5:1 ratio: Try for a 5-to-1 ratio of positive praise to negative comments. There is extensive research showing that people are responsive to feedback when given in this ratio. Even married couples find more success in relationships when feedback is balanced in this way. For example, “Thank you for doing your chores. I appreciate you taking out the trash and cleaning your room. You are really getting more independent. I love the way you did all that without being asked. Next time, please remember to get the trash out of the bathrooms too.” Even if you have bad news to share, you will get much more mileage out of delivering it in this format.

Freedom to fail: do not expect perfection from yourself or your child. Everyone must have the freedom to try new things and the freedom to fail at those things. If you and your child are trying snowboarding for the first time, set the expectation that you will fall 50 times before you make it down the hill without a fall. Go in with a reasonable expectation and cherish the learning experience you can have from failure. Also, if snowboarding just is not your thing, that’s okay. Move on and try something else.

Guide your child through failure without saving them: Children and adolescents need to be coached with loving support when facing difficulties in life. It is inevitable that when your child is an adult, they will face challenges regardless of how happy and protected their childhood is. To help them navigate these inevitable challenges, let them stumble and face the consequences. Stand by them, support them, but do not prevent natural consequences. 

Open communication within the family: A family that is open and encouraging without expecting perfection from any family member sets a good foundation for positive self-esteem. When bad things happen, be authentic with your child. Admit that you are struggling at times too. Remind them that suffering and stumbling blocks are parts of life.

Listen and be present for your child: Everyone will have moments where they just feel terrible about themselves. They may have just lost a big race, failed tryouts for the school play, or had a dear friend abandon them out of the blue. Life happens to us all. Hear your child’s comments, and do not dismiss them as false. Sometimes just a caring and concerned posture is enough. Let your child vent their frustrations freely without correcting them. Sometimes the only thing you can say as a parent is, “I’m here for you,” but generally, that is enough. 

Causes of Low Self-Esteem in Children

  • Depression: Constant evidence of low self-esteem can indicate depression or can leave a child vulnerable to other serious mental health concerns. Depression is defined by feelings of sadness or irritability and loss of pleasure in activities one used to enjoy. Depression is also marked by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Depressed children may have difficulties with concentration, sleep, and eating patterns [1]. The good news is that depression is treatable and many of the techniques for improving self-esteem in this article can be the beginning of a better path ahead.
  • Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): ‘small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen in the course of childhood. Even with a more common distressing experience, such as mild family strife, a school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama, a child’s self-esteem and coping style can be impacted. Often, with ‘small t traumas,’ the child will begin to cope better when adults stay present and talk through the emotions that are coming up with compassion.
  • Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): ‘big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. It is very common for children to have self-esteem issues after experiencing traumatic events. Care for children with these traumatic experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care. Even though support is needed, many children who have experienced trauma can still develop a healthy self-esteem over time.
  • Cognitive distortions and the negative feedback loop: it is well known in psychology that most of our suffering is from the way we think about the events that happen in our lives. Cognitive distortions in our thinking lead us to make sweeping negative statements inconsistent with the facts.

Having low self-esteem leads a child to make negative self-statements and to attach to these beliefs, even when they conflict with evidence. Cognitive distortions like personalization, globalization, and catastrophizing re-affirm these negative beliefs and perpetuate the cycle of negative beliefs.

  • Personalization: is thinking that everything that happens has something to do with you. For example, another child is storming around the lunchroom in a bad mood over something that happened earlier. Your child thinks, “that girl must be mad at me.” 
  • Globalization: is citing one example of when something went wrong as a pervasive and overwhelming trend. For example, “That teacher is always mean” because the teacher scolded a few students for being tardy.
  • Catastrophizing: is seeing a minor inconvenience as evidence for a pending disaster. For example, “I was last in the lunch line yesterday, so I can’t go to school today. I will end up missing lunch and will surely starve to death.”

When to Seek Help for Self-Esteem Issues in Childhood

If you suspect your child has low self-esteem that may be leading to depression, significantly diminished self-worth, or pervasive sadness, it is time to get help. Important warning signs include statements about death, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and depressed mood. If your child is suicidal, call 911, or take them to an emergency room. Err on the side of caution in matters of safety. 

For milder issues with self-esteem or sadness,  it would first be important to consult with a psychologist regarding your concerns. Having someone for your child to talk to can be very helpful in recognizing and treating a variety of mental health issues, including self-esteem problems.

If your child meets the criteria for a mental health or a learning concern, they may need an IEP or Section 504 Plan to provide additional supports and services at school.

Share any diagnostic information or reports with your School Psychologist or School Counselor to get the ball rolling. For a child who is depressed, having someone to talk to at school can go a long way. A counselor or school psychologist can provide a listening ear. School staff can also work to pair your child with good peer buddies and to facilitate friendships that can support the development of positive self-esteem.

Professional Resources for Self-Esteem in Children

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider self-esteem issues in mental health and brain-based context
  • Psychotherapist or play therapist: to help your child build self-esteem skills and provide strategies for possible underlying mental health concerns 
  • School psychologist: to consider interventions, a 504 plan, or IEP
  • School counselor: to help with underlying causes of low-self esteem such as lack of friendships, study skills, or communication skills 

Similar Conditions to Low Self-Esteem

  • Achievement issues: children who struggle in school often have difficulties with self-esteem
  • Emotion regulation: children who struggle with emotional regulation often have poor self-esteem
  • Anxiety & stress: children who are nervous, perfectionistic, or who worry a lot may have poor self-esteem
  • Social skills problems: children with poor social skills generally have low self-esteem
  • Victim of bullying: children with low self-esteem have been victims or perpetrators of bullying; some may also struggle with frequent peer conflict
  • Depression: children who are often sad or unmotivated generally have a low self-esteem

Resources on Self-Esteem Issues in Childhood

Seligman, Martin E.P. (1995). The optimistic child: A revolutionary program that safeguards children against depression and builds lifelong resilience.

Positive Action Curriculum (6th grade curriculum specifically addresses self-esteem) https://www.positiveaction.net/

Freeland, Claire A. B. & Toner, Jacqueline B. (2016). What to do when you feel too shy: A kid’s guide to overcoming social anxiety.

Guest, Jennifer (2016). The CBT art activity book: 100 illustrated handouts for creative therapeutic work.

Mulcahy, William (2016). Zach makes mistakes.

Moss, Wendy L. (2010) Being Me: A Kid’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Self-esteem.

McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm.

Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.

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