Building and Nurturing Self-Esteem: Advice to Parents with Kids of All Ages

“We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light.” —Mary Dunbar

Self-esteem is the way a person evaluates his or her own competence and worth. It can be influenced by a person’s family, upbringing, and environment, but it isn’t inherited like brown eyes or curly hair; it’s taught. Self-esteem can be built and strengthened over time, or it can be gradually eroded. And no one has more power to build or erode a kid’s self-esteem than his or her own parents. Research connects low self-esteem with problems like violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, school dropouts, suicide, low academic achievement and teenage pregnancy. By teaching our kids to value themselves and the things they’re good at, they also learn how important it is to be treated with respect and valued by others.

Tips for all parents:

  • Always acknowledge a job well done. Even if you’ve set an expectation of high performance for your kids, telling them they did a good job helps motivate them to maintain those standards.
  • Start with the positive. Even when you’re correcting your kids or pointing out areas for improvement, it’s almost always possible to start with a positive: “It’s great that you passed the math test, but I feel sure that if you put a little more time into preparing next time, you’ll get an ‘A’.”
  • If you get angry, explain why you’re angry. And don’t just give negative feedback, explain it: “This disappoints me because I know you’re smart enough to do a much better job.”
  • Help your kids problem-solve when appropriate, but don’t always solve their problems for them. Some issues definitely require adult intervention, but others only require good advice. Resist the urge to hand your child a solution. Instead, ask him if he needs your help deciding what to do and then share your views.
  • Surrender some domains of responsibility. If your six-year old cleans his room regularly, focus on that rather than the fact that the Legos are not stacked as neatly as you might have done.
  • Ask for your child’s opinion. Kids develop opinions very early; ask them what they are, ask them why, listen to their responses. It doesn’t mean you have to give in to those opinions, just that you should respect them.
  • Encourage your kids to walk in another’s shoes. Respect and esteem for others goes hand-in-hand with self-esteem.

For parents with children ages birth to 5

  • Hugs and kisses go a long way. It won’t be long before your kid resists your attempts at these displays of affection, so now is the time! Research shows that not only does caring, physical contact improve brain development in infants and children, it contributes to feelings of safety and well-being, and teaches them the importance of affection.
  • Allow them to make mistakes. It’s tough to permit your three-year old to pour her own juice when you know she is sure to make a spill, but grit your teeth and do it! She’ll feel great for having tried, just so long as you don’t overreact when she gets a less than perfect result.
  • Show empathy. Ever wonder why you instinctively make those cooing noises at the slightest injury to your child? It’s not just that you want to comfort her; it’s also your way of showing her you understand how she feels. This is an essential part of her development that you should be sure to nurture early and often. It will help your child grow into a caring, empathetic adult.

For parents with children ages 6–9

  • Remind them of what they’re good at. At this stage, your kids will be more open to trying new things, and they won’t be good at everything. Be sure to always offer encouragement and reminders of the things in which they do excel.
  • Don’t compare. Being compared to someone else, even favorably, can be uncomfortable. Comparing one sibling to the other can be particularly damaging to self-esteem, not to mention to positive familial relationships.
  • Be attentive. To be ignored, or made to feel as though you are not listened to can make kids feel unimportant. Consider that while in school, they are primarily in a passive listening role. Home should be a place where their positive self-expression is always valued.

For parents with children ages 10–15

  • Set reasonable goals. We’ve all heard the phrase “setting you up to fail”. That’s what unreasonable goals do to your kids, and at this stage where self-doubt is not uncommon, setting kids up to fail can have long lasting consequences such as robbing them of motivation.
  • Set aside time for them. At this stage, you are probably enjoying the fact that your kids need less supervision than they did in previous years. Don’t go overboard by neglecting to spend quality time with them as a family. They are less independent than they pretend to be.
  • Set Limits and boundaries. They will object, of course. But don’t let that stop you. Underneath all the complaining and whining, your kids know that the rules and boundaries you set are an expression of love. They will feel valued (and valuable) if you care about where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing when they are not with you.

For parents with children ages 16-18

  • Celebrate accomplishments with care. At this stage, your kids are old enough to distinguish between genuine accolades and attempts to soothe their ego. Beware of overpraising your child, as giving false praise can cause more harm than good. Always provide positive encouragement, however, and urge them to stick with difficult tasks.
  • Take their feelings seriously. Time and experience has taught you that the teenage years are fraught with false crises and melodrama. But remember how real it felt to you at the time? Your kids feel the same way. Never belittle or ridicule them for their emotions; it will make them feel diminished and discourage them from sharing their feelings with you and others they develop relationships with in the future.
  • Show up. Support your older teens’ interests and show up for their events. Even if you don’t understand their music, or fully appreciate their art, your interest and the fact that you made them a priority is what will help boost their self-confidence.
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Sources:

1. Schore, Alan, Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health, (2001).

2. National Association for Self-Esteem.

3. Crockenberg, S, & Soby, B, “Self-Esteem and Teenage Pregnancy.” The Social Importance of Self-Esteem. U.C. Press, Berkeley, CA, (1989).

4. Keegan, A, “Positive Self-Image—A Cornerstone of Success.” Guidepost, (February 19,1987).

5. ParentFurther e-newsletter, Boosting your child’s self esteem.

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