As a parent, you know that a child’s self-esteem is essential to making friends and succeeding in school. As an adult, you know that self-esteem is equally vital to having a successful career and healthy relationships throughout life. So how do we make sure our kids love and accept who they are? And what can parents do to foster and enhance their self-esteem?
Sarah is 7 years old and in 2nd grade. She enjoys school and loves to draw and read. Sarah is shy and introverted and has difficulty making friends at school. She gets nervous around other kids and doesn’t enjoy very many activities. In an effort to help her make more friends, her parents enrolled her in a ballet class. The day of Sarah’s first recital, she was extremely nervous and shaky. During her routine, Sarah missed a move and fell behind the rest of the group. She clearly looked embarrassed. Afterwards, Sarah walked to her parents, crying and said “I suck! I’m a horrible dancer. All of the other girls are so much better than me. I’m never going back to dance class!”
10 Tips for Improving Your Child’s Self Esteem
Self-esteem and a positive self-image are characteristics that children develop through experiences. A child with a positive self-image can fail at something, but still believe that they are lovable and worthwhile and that they can succeed if they keep on trying. In the same situation, a child with a negative self-image may criticize himself and believe that they will never be successful. How can you ensure that your child is the former? How can we take what Sarah said and turn it into a learning moment that will enhance her self-esteem later? And if we notice signs of low self-esteem, how can we intervene? Below are some tried and true ways we have found helpful in improving children’s self-esteem.
- Praise the Process, Not the Product
Understand your child’s strengths and limitations. We can push children to challenge themselves and try new things, but we shouldn’t expect them to succeed in everything. Instead we should expect them to fail a lot during while trying. Success is not the goal, continuing to try and believe in themselves is what is most important. Honor the strengths you see in your child. Push them to work hard to improve at things they are good at and encourage the process. Sarah may not be a talented dancer, and that’s ok! She has a knack for drawing and loves reading.
What is most important is praising her effort and qualities she exhibits has she continues to practice and work on her skills. These are the traits, that when nurtured and acknowledge, help a child learn the skills and qualities necessary to succeed at life.
2. Don’t Fix it
After Sarah’s recital, the temptation is to say “You don’t suck! You did a good job and you tried your hardest. You’ll just have to practice more next time”. This can make a child feel alone and invalidated. You can’t undo Sarah’s feelings of failing and frustration, but you can comfort her. You can also express understanding about how horrible it feels to mess up. Instead, try saying “I can see that missing that move made you really upset”. You don’t have to agree with or validate her self-deprecation, but you can help her accept the feelings she’s having.
3. Teach Self-Comfort
Failing stinks. We’ve all failed at something and we know how terrible it can feel to not be good at something that seems to come easily to everyone else. As humans, we experience this feeling throughout our lives and we can’t prevent these low moments. We can, however teach children to manage these feelings and comfort themselves through them. Some useful techniques are deep breathing, doing something they enjoy (e.g. drawing, listening to music), exercise, etc.
4. Don’t Exaggerate Your Praise
Another temptation may be to say “You did an amazing job! You’re such a great dancer. No one even noticed that you messed up on that one move. You did an incredible job on the spinning!” This is especially tempting if your child is someone who tends to self criticize and be hard on themselves when they mess up. We may think that by praising the things they did well, we are helping them see that they didn’t mess up so badly after all. However, research has shown that when parents provide exaggerated praise to kids with low self-esteem it lowers it even more.
The Self-Deflation Hypothesis
According to the self-deflation hypothesis, when parents provide exaggerated praise (e.g. your drawing is soooo amazing!) they are setting unattainable standards for their child. In essence, they are saying “I expect you to do incredibly well all the time”. And if the task you’re praising is easy and simple for them, but is still praised in an exaggerated way, the child may think that you don’t believe they can succeed at more difficult tasks. On the other hand, if the child you’re praising already has high self-esteem, the exaggerated praise can do the opposite, it can promote narcissism. And nobody wants more narcissism in the world. Another problem with exaggerated praise is that children may learn that their worth is defined by what others think of them. We want children to be internally motivated to do well and not be on a constant search for validation from others.
The key to providing praise is authenticity. If your praise is authentic, meaningful, and concrete it can positively contribute to your child’s self-worth and self-esteem.
5. Create a Balance
Research has also found a positive link between authoritative parenting and children’s self-esteem. Authoritative parents are warm, responsive to their child’s emotional needs, set clear limits on behavior, and enforce boundaries. Two other parenting styles, authoritarian and permissive, are shown to negatively impact a child’s self-esteem. Authoritarian parents demand complete obedience and are emotionally unresponsive and permissive parents are loving and nurturing but have very few rules and structure for their kids. The thing is, kids desperately need a balance of nurture, structure and clear boundaries.
6. Involve Everyone
Involve both parents in the emotional aspects of parenting. Many times moms may take the lead in the nurturing and comforting aspects of their children’s lives and dads may take a more secondary role. However, when both parents are attuned to the emotional needs of the child, there are two people that are consistently communicating that the child is worthy of love and concern.
The amount of time a parent spends contributing to the emotional aspects of parenting doesn’t affect a child’s self-esteem, but the time that is spent should be meaningful. Even if one parent is the primary caregiver and the other is secondary, both parents can be actively involved in contributing to their child’s self-esteem if their interactions are warm, nurturing, and sensitive.
7. Model It!
Your child is constantly watching how you handle yourself and manage your interactions in the world. If you talk in a self-deprecating way and discuss all of the things you’re terrible at, it teaches children to talk and think in that way about themselves. Children will notice how you respond to your successes and to your failures. You don’t have to be bright and sunny all the time. You can fail and feel sad or disappointed, then comfort yourself and show that you still feel like a worthwhile and lovable person.
Remember that old saying, “It’s not what you say, but what you do that matters.” So parents, show your children how you love yourself, forgive yourself, encourage yourself and comfort yourself. Trust me they are watching and taking notes.
8. Talk About Feelings
When discussing a past event with a child, it’s important to talk about the event and the emotions associated with that event. Many parents will talk about the details of the event, but may omit how they and the child felt during that event. When talking to Sarah about the dance recital, talk about how she felt leading up to the recital, how she felt being on stage, how she felt when she made the mistake, etc. By discussing the feelings and what caused them, we can teach kids so much more. To get a deeper understanding about helping your children with the emotions visit our guest blog post; Taming the Emotional Rollercoaster: Talking to Kids about Feelings. All of this self-awareness and self-regulation of emotions has been shown to lead to high self-esteem.
9. Break it Down
Obviously, we don’t want to teach children that if something’s challenging, just quit. We want to encourage kids to accept failure and try again without pushing them past their limit. After a setback, when a child is ready to try again, they will need your help to break down the skill and tackle one small task at a time. After Sarah has accepted her dancing setback and has agreed to try again, help her by breaking down the move she missed into tiny parts. She’ll be able to experience one small success at a time as she masters the move. This will foster confidence in her abilities.
10. Love Them Unconditionally!
The most effective strategy to enhance your child’s self-esteem is to communicate to your child that they are loved and valued unconditionally. No matter what they succeed in or what mistakes they make, you will love. By spending time nurturing your child and showing interest in things they value, you will teach them that they are loved and accepted for who they are and that they should love and accept themselves too.
Counseling for Children & Parents in the Houston Area
Do you wonder if your child would benefit from counseling to help improve their self esteem? Are you looking for parent coaching or family therapy services? As a Houston area child & family therapy clinic, Brittani Persha Counseling provides both child therapy services (including play therapy, child anxiety treatment & child behavior specialists) as well parent coaching and family therapy. To learn more about our services schedule a FREE 20 Minute Phone Consultation Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to ask us anything! Our skilled child & family therapists are here to help you and your family.
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