Fostering Self-Esteem in Children

Whether as adults or as children, we constantly judge ourselves. The quality of this judgement decides the level of self-esteem we have.

Self-esteem is a measure of how we value and perceive ourselves. It is a judgement on ourselves. Feeling less worthy about oneself can hinder our lifestyles and slow down our growth process. Self-esteem can be described as a combination of feeling loved and capable. With a balanced self-esteem one can have a happy and successful life in all aspects, be it school life, relationships, academics, family, profession, etc.

Self-esteem fluctuates as a child grows. It is frequently changed and fine-tuned, as it is affected by a child’s experiences and new perceptions. As parents, we need to observe our children, and through their behavior and mannerisms, we can understand what the child is experiencing.  It helps parents be aware of the signs of both healthy and unhealthy self-esteem.


Signs of Healthy and Unhealthy Self-Esteems

A child who has healthy self-esteem tends to enjoy interacting with others. His comforts in social settings, easy mingling, enthusiasms and different interests exhibit the healthy state of mind.

When challenges arise, a child can work towards finding solutions. When a child knows his/her strengths and limitations (improvements) and accepts them, a sense of optimism prevails. The child enjoys group activities as well as independent pursuits. A child happy with his/her achievements but not felt loved will eventually have low self-esteem. Similarly, children who feel loved but are doubtful about their own abilities can end up feeling poorly about themselves. Healthy self-esteem results when both aspects are achieved.

A child who has unhealthy self-esteem may not want to try new things. He frequently speaks negatively about himself, saying such things as, “I’ll never know how to do this,” or “What’s the point of doing this, when nobody cares about me anyway.” He shows a low tolerance for defeat, gives up easily or waits for someone else to take over. Children with low self-esteem see temporary and minor setbacks as permanent and unbearable conditions. In part, this is because these setbacks form a pattern for them. Such children do not expect much from others, such as invitations to do things together. A sense of pessimism predominates.


 Some symptoms of low self-esteem are:

Symptoms* Usual statements/display of behavior by the child
Feeling hopeless “I can’t do it.”
Sensitivity to criticism “Everybody scolds me every day.”
Social withdrawal Refraining from social settings like get-togethers or plays
Hostility “Teacher always catches me.”
Aggression Shouting, loud voice, back-answering, verbal/physical abuse
Blaming oneself unfairly “I am unlucky” / “It’s all because of me.”
Hating oneself Injuring oneself / self-mutilation
Worrying about being unable to do things “How will I do this” / “What can I possibly do?”
Excessive preoccupation with personal problems Unable to accept one’s own looks/physical appearance
Fatigue, insomnia and headaches Sleeplessness, laziness, constant complaining, nagging etc.

*Consult a professional if symptoms persist for more than two months.


Can parents help the child deal with this? Yes! Of course! Here are some guidelines that can make a big difference:

  • Watch what you say. Children are sensitive to the parents’ words. Praise your child not just for the job well done but also for their effort. But be truthful. For example, if your child doesn’t make it to the sports team, avoid saying “well, next time if you work harder, you will make it there.” Instead, say something like, “Well, you didn’t make the team, but I’m happy about the effort you have put in.” Reward effort and completion of the job instead of the outcome. Appreciate in public but reprimand in private.
  • Be a positive role model. If you are unnecessarily harsh on yourself, negative or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your child will eventually mirror you. First, nurture your own self-esteem, and become a great role model. If something bad happens, don’t make general negative statements about others, such as, “People are mean” or “You can’t count on anybody.” Your child may not realize that your comments are stronger than how you really feel.
  • Identify and redirect your child’s inaccurate beliefs. As you observe your child, understand his/her beliefs. When you find more of negative belief statements coming up, make a note of them and redesign them towards positivity. A child who is not good with spellings, but reads the words correctly, sometimes may say, “I’m no good at dictations. I always end up making mistakes.” Not only is this a false generalization, but it’s also a belief that will set him up for failure. Encourage the child to see the situation in its true light. A helpful response might be, “Your efforts are appreciable, and you can surely do well in your dictations. We’ll work on it together.”

Father and son doing a fist bump

  • Be spontaneous and affectionate with your child. Love and affection mean a lot to children. Your care for the child will go a long way to boost the child’s self-esteem. Tell them you’re proud of them. Give praise frequently and honestly, without overdoing it. Kids can tell whether something comes from the heart.
  • Give positive, accurate feedback. A comment such as, “You are always messy,” may cause a child to start believing it. A better statement is, “I noticed you miss to take some of your books to school. Do pack your bag at night so that you don’t miss any of them”. This encourages the child to recollect instructions and decide to implement them again next time.
  • Involve your child in productive settings. Encourage cooperation instead of competition. For instance, a mentoring session where an elder sibling or child helps a younger one practice an activity can do wonders for both children. If one child is preparing for a competition, involve the other child too in the preparation and practice. Keep an encouraging and positive house environment. Eliminate any silly sibling fights and have a calm and composed background. A sense of responsibility and bonding is built up among the siblings.
  • Consider professional help. If you find a child has low self-esteem, he may benefit from talking with a professional. Don’t hesitate to meet a professional as low self-esteem if not dealt with in time, may lead to several other complications in life.

Medha Kedar Tonapi,

Health in your Mind



Picture Credits: Women’s web, Relationships Australia Victoria, Getty images


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