How to Boost Self Esteem in Kids

How to Boost Self Esteem in Kids

By: Loren Lomme, MA, LPC, RPT

There’s been a lot of debate lately about how to praise kids and give them attention and how much is too much….especially in the form of “helicopter parenting” – that horrible name given to the style of parenting that looks a lot like smothering and over involvement in a kid’s life. This often comes up alongside topics such as raising independent kids, building/hindering self-esteem and confidence, and nurturing our kids. I’m going to speak to the topic of self-esteem and confidence, what this means for our kids, and how we as parents can appropriately foster it in our children without discouraging autonomy.

Now, more than ever, our kiddos are having a hard time maintaining self-esteem. The usual fear of judgment by peers and self is still present, but it’s now accompanied by the pressures and prevalence of social media in our environments and relationships. It’s no wonder that our kids are second guessing their every move when it could show up on an Instagram account for their entire grade to see. It’s not only scary for us as parents, but there is often very little we can do to control the choices our kids’ peers make that may affect how our kids feel about themselves. We can, however, build self-esteem at home (and from a young age) so that they can better weather the inevitable storms of middle school, high school, and beyond.

Start with considering that kids behavior is a reflection of their beliefs. So if a child believes they are capable of success, they are more likely to attempt a new or difficult task. You can empower your child to believe the best about themselves by telling your child when you notice something positive that they have done. “You’ve been working really hard on that science project….You put your backpack and shoes away without any reminders today….I saw you getting upset with your friend, but you were able to stop yourself from pushing him….You made your entire lunch by yourself today.” Notice how all of these positive reflections are about behavior. When parents only tell kids things like “great job” or “that’s a really pretty picture,” kids will often dispute or negate those types of generalized statements because they may not believe them or agree with them and they can’t be proven.

Teach your child to be a problem-solver instead of feeling like he or she IS the problem.

One of my kiddos struggled with losing important belongings for quite a while. Her purse would get left at a friend’s house, her wallet would get lost at the mall, etc. She would get really upset after these incidents occurred and blame herself for being “stupid” or “irresponsible.” In my frustration of yet another lost item, I could have followed up with, “You are always setting your stuff down and forgetting it.” First of all, I would have not helped the situation at all, and secondly, I would have contributed to her negative view of herself in the moment and to her feeling of “I can’t do anything right.” Instead we would have conversations with her about how she could help herself keep track of her belongings. We tried to help her problem-solve with questions like, “What could you do or use to remember what you’re supposed to bring home from the sleepover?” In this way, she was empowered to start solving her own problems and we sent the implicit message that we had confidence in her ability to figure this out and get past it. When you try this with your own kids, remember to encourage any progress that they make, even if it’s small!

Next up in building self-esteem, help set your kids up for success and work with them to keep setbacks in perspective.

We all have a tendency toward all or nothing thinking when we are disappointed or discouraged…”I’ll never get it right” or “I’m not smart,” but kids are extra susceptible to these thoughts when something goes wrong. You can increase their confidence by helping them look at a situation through a different lens. “I know you’re frustrated about missing that goal during your soccer game, but that was only one game. You’ll have 6 more games this season.” Then set your kid up for success. Don’t expect that they will magically be better next time without any work or problem-solving. Ask them, “what could we do this week to help you get better at scoring goals?” Encourage their ideas, “What a great idea, let’s make a plan to make it happen!” Then follow through!! If your kid decided to practice kicking 10 goals each day after school this week, remind them of their plan and go outside to help them and cheer them on. When their action pays off, they’ll be more confident to try again when things don’t work out in the future instead of giving up. I always emphasize that perfect is the enemy of better when I work with kids or adults.

Lastly, take advantage of your parent status and the fact that kids tend to believe what their parents say and do.

Find creative ways to show your child how awesome you think they are. Let your child “accidentally” overhear you telling your spouse about the amazing thing they did today or tell grandma about something positive from the week so that she can tell your kiddo how much you were bragging about him the next time she sees him. Hang up a “You did it!” dry erase board in the kitchen and make sure to update it each day with something positive that you noticed your child doing that day. It’s there for everyone to see, including your child, and when he or she has had a rough day and is feeling down on themselves, they will still be able to see the positives that the people they love see in them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had one of these?! The more often that you can incorporate these and other esteem-building ideas into your relationship with your children, the higher self-worth they will have. With higher self-esteem they will also have increased optimism and commitment, have greater resiliency, and be better able to accept disagreement and uncertainty…all of which are building blocks to more positive relationships with others and themselves. 

Equally important to acknowledging and praising effort is helping your child learn to manage failure. It happens to everyone, and kids that have a hard time dealing with failure will also be less likely to attempt new or challenging activities. It’s not realistic to be the best at everything, so when something goes wrong or not as expected, use this as an opportunity to help your child manage their emotional reaction and realize that they can survive messing up. Non-judgmental parent reactions are key here.

If you would like parenting advice or therapy for your children, let us know and we will be glad to help.