Having a child who grows up with healthy self-esteem is not just “a happy accident”. Research shows that the important grown-ups in their lives have a huge impact on how kids feel about themselves. Here are ten self-esteem boosters from psychologist and Education.com expert Laura Kauffman, Ph.D.
1.) Let your kids know they’re the sun, moon, and stars to you.
In order for them to develop self-esteem as they’re making their way in the world, it’s essential that kids have grown-ups – at least one – who love them unconditionally. Feeling “lovable” is the core of having self-esteem and the best way to feel lovable is to feel loved. As often as you can, tell your kids directly how dear they are to you. Take every chance you get to hug your children and let them know that you’re proud of them and love them. To develop healthy self-esteem, kids need to know they are treasured and that there is nothing they could ever do to make you stop loving them.
2.) “Catch them” being successful.
When you give positive, accurate feedback your child is likely to do more of the same. Look for opportunities to praise your children. Be very specific when praising kids and try to avoid “blanket praise”. Saying things like “I’m so proud of how hard you worked on this test. You’ve been doing all your homework and you studied really hard and you deserve to have gotten this great grade!” will do more for your child’s self esteem than saying “You’re so smart!” Excessively flattery can actually end up making kids feel pressured rather than confident.
3.) Criticize carefully.
Of course discipline is an important part of parenting, but when reprimanding children or applying consequences be sure they understand that you’re concerned or frustrated about their behavior, not who they are as a person. Never name-call, berate, belittle or compare one child to another. Let your child know exactly what was unacceptable or inappropriate about her behavior and why you feel that way.
4.) Accept that your child’s not perfect – and help her do the same.
While reinforcing your child’s positive traits is key to bolstering their self-esteem, it’s also important to help your child cope with their inevitable shortcomings. When kids identify things they “don’t like” about themselves, help them modify those negative thoughts by taking action or resetting their expectations. Kids who have body image issues may benefit from regular exercise with their family. They also need to know that they do not need to look like models in magazines.
Don’t ignore negative comments kids make about themselves. Talk through their feelings with them to help them get on a more positive path. If a child says, "I can't do math. I'm a bad student," a helpful response might be: "You are a good student. Math is just a subject that you need to spend more time on. We'll work on it together."
5.) Set clear limits.
Kids thrive in an environment where their grown-ups have realistic expectations, clear cut rules, and logical consequences. It is actually quite comforting for children to know that they don’t have to tackle the world all by themselves, and that they have a responsible, in-charge adult by their side. Don’t ask your kids to be mind readers, communicate directly to let them know what the rules are, why they’re in place, and what consequences they’ll face if the rules are broken.
6.) Help your kids express their thoughts and emotions.
When we notice a child is quiet or in a bad mood and ask them what’s wrong, the answer we frequently hear is “nothing.” For kids, understanding their emotions is actually much harder than many people recognize. Children benefit from some on-the-job “training” in order to learn how to accurately identify sadness, anger, or frustration. You can even use an emotion chart (chart with faces depicting different emotions available for free on the web) and have kids point to the face that looks like how they feel. Help kids experience their emotions in a healthy way without censoring or judging their reaction or problems.
For instance, if a toddler cries when another child takes a toy away from them it can be tempting to minimize your child’s pain, but this is an opportunity to let your child identify the emotion and learn to cope with it. Instead, you could say, “I know that you are frustrated and disappointed that Billy took your toy from you. That feels bad! Let’s take a moment to feel bad and then let’s see if we can talk to Billy about a sharing arrangement for the toy.”
7.) Be present with your children.
Once your child knows how to express her feelings, make sure you take time to listen! Since many things compete for our attention in today’s hectic world, we sometimes have trouble focusing. Try to set aside a certain amount of time, even if it is only five or ten minutes after school, to give your child your full, undivided attention. Turn off your cell phone and the TV and listen actively to your child. Ask questions and remember key points. Try to understand the point of your child’s story and how she feels when relaying the information. Remember that you do not have to fix everything; the child may just need to air his or her feelings. And being heard is a big part of developing self-esteem.
8.) Help your child learn from mistakes.
Make sure your child knows that making mistakes is part of life. Encourage your kids to take appropriate risks even if it means that they make mistakes. When parents encourage risk taking and accept failure, they are teaching kids how to be kind and patient with themselves, which is essential to their self-esteem. It can be very encouraging for kids to hear stories about mistakes their own parents made (and overcame!)
9.) Be a positive role model by nurturing your own self-esteem.
Don't be too hard on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations. Remember, you are your child’s role model! When appropriate, talk to your kids about your own life and feelings. When your child hears stories about you taking risks, surviving failure, or doing something that made you proud of yourself, they’re likely to try to do the same in their own lives.
10.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
In some cases, even our best efforts and intentions aren’t enough to insure a child’s healthy self-esteem. Especially during the teen years, some kids may need a little more help than others. If you're concerned about your child’s self-esteem, talk to her doctor or a therapist with training in pediatric mental health issues.
While the tips above are useful for kids of all ages, there are some specific things parents can do to sustain and enhance their kids’ self-esteem as they develop:
- Little ones: Recent research underscores the importance of the early childhood years as a critically important period for the development of future mental health and self-esteem. Young children need to know that the important adults in their lives love them, accept them, and would go out of their way to ensure their safety and well-being. Kids this age can’t get too many hugs or too much love!
- Elementary school: Encourage K-5 kids to stretch themselves by tackling challenging tasks they think they can accomplish. Parents should make reasonable efforts to help make success possible while still allowing kids to make mistakes and recover from failures. Parents should help kids focus their attention on their improvement over time as a result of hard work and perseverance rather than placing too much emphasis on any individual outcome.
- Middle school: Be especially supportive and optimistic about kids’ abilities and potential for success at this stage. Be patient when kids show extraordinary self-consciousness and give them strategies for presenting themselves well to others. Kids this age are heavily influenced by their friends and the media who may try to convince them they can have fun, be successful, or have exciting adventures through certain unhealthy behaviors. It’s more important than ever for parents to keep communicating with their middle school aged children.
- High school: When discussing the potential consequences of risky behaviors, present the facts, but don’t make your teen so anxious or upset that she can’t effectively learn and remember – avoid scare tactics. Give your teen plenty of opportunities to examine and try out a variety of adult-like roles while continuing to help her set realistic expectations and be patient with herself.