What is Self-Esteem in Childhood?
Self-esteem in childhood is your child’s confidence in who they are and what they can do. In this article, parents will learn strategies to help kids build positive self-esteem.
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 struggle sometimes.
To foster self-esteem, it is important for kids to also feel safe, feel loved, and find success when faced with something new or hard. These experiences build self-esteem and confidence.
The key ingredients to building healthy self-esteem are setting goals, taking on responsibility, seeing tasks through to completion, and celebrating success. A child needs to be able to picture success and know when they have achieved it.
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Top 10 Reasons Self-Esteem is Important
1. Your child can handle setbacks.
Children with high self-esteem can better tolerate minor setbacks and failures without losing confidence and motivation to keep trying.
2. Your child can make 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.
3. Your child can find good peer models and friends.
Children with high self-esteem find good peer models and friends who care for and respect them more easily.
4. Your child can resist peer pressure.
People with higher self-esteem are better at forming friendships, keeping friendships, and managing peer pressure. 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.
5. Your child can stand up for oneself.
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.
6. Your child can develop 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.
7. Your child can have protective patterns for the teenage years.
Teens tend to have an egocentric outlook on life and 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 their achievements.
8. Your child can obtain 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.
9. Your child can define 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.
10. Your child has the freedom to fail.
One of the best things about healthy self-esteem is the freedom to fail. Denzel Washington gave an excellent graduation speech about ‘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 healthy self-esteem are able to be grateful for the learning and then move on to something else without regret.
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. Your child is 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. Your child is 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. Your child is excessively self-criticizing.
Children with low self-esteem may make negative self-statements that are broad and unfounded. They might say, “I’m the dumbest person in this class,” or “everyone knows I am horrible at math.”
4. Your child is making 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. Your child is showing 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. Your child is making 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 these negative self-statements are unfounded.
7. Your child is using 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 say, “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 highly damaging to self-esteem.
Top 3 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Self-Esteem
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, some key strategies parents can try to help their children improve their self-esteem are below. The top three ideas presented here are: teaching your child to make positive attributions, being a good example, and providing meaningful feedback.
In these efforts to improve your child’s self-esteem, be patient and persistent. This work is not easy to do. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is your child’s self-esteem.
Way #1 to improve self-esteem: use positive attributions
One meaningful way to improve self-esteem is to understand what psychologists call ‘attribution theory.’ This theory proposes that people with high self-esteem interpret failure experiences differently.
“Unhappy people tend to attribute failures to global, unchangeable, and personal factors” .
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 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 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.
How parents can improve their child’s self-esteem with positive language
When your child makes a mistake, let them face the consequences 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 how 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, if 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.
Even while dealing with something challenging, like failing a class, your child can learn something valuable.
The most important message you can send is this: “Mistakes and decisions don’t have to be permanent. You can use this lesson as a chance to start again. Take your consequences and learn from them but don’t give up. You can always do better next time. So long as you never stop, you are unstoppable.”
Way #2 to improve self-esteem: be a good example of self-esteem
To improve your child’s self-esteem, it is important to be a good example. You can help your child best by demonstrating how to accept that some failures and setbacks are part of life. It will help them to know that feelings are normal and natural and do not last forever.
Be a good example.
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 handling 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 with 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 challenges.
To deal with their 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.
Way #3 to improve self-esteem: provide meaningful feedback
The third important way to improve your child’s self-esteem is to provide specific and meaningful feedback. It is easy for parents to get into the trap of saying somewhat ambiguous things like, “I am proud of you” or “Good job.” It’s nice to be positive, but be careful about being so general and unclear about the feedback. Instead, give specific praise that is tied to a particular behavior.
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. Extensive research shows 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.
Give your child the 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 reasonable expectations 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.
Use 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
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 . The good news is that depression is treatable, and many techniques for improving self-esteem in this article can be the beginning of a better path.
Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’)
‘Small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen during childhood. Common distressing experiences can impact a child’s self-esteem, such as mild family strife, a school change, the loss of a pet, or peer drama.
If your child has chronic self-esteem issues, getting curious about what could be happening emotionally will be important. Often, small t traumas cause significant and ongoing stress that can lead to poor coping mechanisms, diminished self-esteem, and persistent emotional problems. In this case, trauma treatment is required to help your child develop improved self-esteem.
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 common for children to have significant self-esteem and other emotional issues after experiencing traumatic events. Care for children with big t trauma 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 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 how we think about the events in our lives. Cognitive distortions in our thinking lead us to make sweeping negative statements inconsistent with the facts.
Low self-esteem leads a child to make negative self-statements and attach to these beliefs, even when they conflict with evidence. Cognitive distortions like personalization, globalization, and catastrophizing reaffirm these negative beliefs and perpetuate the cycle.
- 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 tardiness.
- 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 a psychologist regarding your concerns. Having someone for your child to talk to can be very helpful in recognizing and treating various 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
 Washington, Denzel (2011). Fall Forward. University of Pennsylvania Graduation Speech.
 Seligman, Martin E.P. (1995). The optimistic child: A revolutionary program that safeguards children against depression and builds lifelong resilience.
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.
McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm.
Moss, Wendy L. (2010) Being Me: A Kid’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Self-esteem.
Mulcahy, William (2016). Zach makes mistakes.
Positive Action Curriculum (6th grade curriculum specifically addresses self-esteem) https://www.positiveaction.net/