by Sarah Henry
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
Nurturing your child’s self-esteem may seem like a hefty responsibility. After all, a feeling of self-worth lays the foundation for your child’s future as he sets out to try new things on his own. “Self-esteem comes from having a sense of belonging, believing that we’re capable, and knowing our contributions are valued and worthwhile,” says California family therapist Jane Nelsen, co-author of the Positive Discipline series.
“As any parent knows, self-esteem is a fleeting experience,” says Nelsen. “Sometimes we feel good about ourselves and sometimes we don’t. What we are really trying to teach our kids are life skills like resiliency.” Your goal as a parent is to ensure that your child develops pride and self-respect — in himself and in his cultural roots — as well as faith in his ability to handle life’s challenges (for a school-age child that may mean giving a dance performance for you). Here are ten simple strategies to help boost your child’s self-esteem:
Give unconditional love. A child’s self-esteem flourishes with the kind of no-strings-attached devotion that says, “I love you, no matter who you are or what you do.” Your child benefits the most when you accept him for who he is regardless of his strengths, difficulties, temperament, or abilities. So, lavish him with love. Give him plenty of cuddles, kisses, and pats on the shoulder. And don’t forget to tell him how much you love him. When you do have to correct your child, make it clear that it’s his behavior — not him — that’s unacceptable. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re a naughty boy! Why can’t you be good?” say, “Please don’t throw the football in the house. A football is an outside toy.”
Pay attention. Carve out time to give your child your undivided attention. That does wonders for your child’s feelings of self-worth because it sends the message that you think he’s important and valuable. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time; it just means taking a moment to stop flicking through the mail if he’s trying to talk with you or turning off the TV long enough to answer a question. Make eye contact so it’s clear that you’re really listening to what he’s saying. When you’re strapped for time, let your child know it without ignoring his needs. Say, “Tell me all about what happened at soccer practice, and then when you’re finished, I’ll need to make our dinner.”
Teach limits. Establish a few reasonable rules for your child. For instance, if you tell him to wear his helmet when he rides his bike in the driveway, don’t let him go without it at his friend’s house. Knowing that certain family rules are set in stone will help him feel more secure. He’ll start to live by your expectations soon enough. Just be clear and consistent and show him that you trust him and expect him to do the right thing.
Support healthy risks. Encourage your child to explore something new, such as trying a different food, making a new friend, or riding a skateboard. Though there’s always the possibility of failure, without risk there’s little opportunity for success. So let your child safely experiment, and resist the urge to intervene. For instance, try not to “rescue” him the minute he’s showing mild frustration at figuring out how to read a tricky word. Jumping in to say, “I’ll do it” can foster dependence and diminish your child’s confidence. You’ll build his self-esteem by balancing your need to protect him with his need to tackle new tasks.
Let mistakes happen. The flip side, of course, of having choices and taking risks is that sometimes your child is bound to make mistakes. These are valuable lessons for your child’s confidence. So if your child misses the school bus because he was dawdling in his bedroom, encourage him to think about what he might do differently next time. That way his self-esteem won’t sag and he’ll understand that it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes. When you goof up yourself, admit it, says Daniel Meier, assistant professor of elementary education at San Francisco State University. Acknowledging and recovering from your mistakes sends a powerful message to your child — it makes it easier for your child to accept his own difficulties.
Celebrate the positive. Everyone responds well to encouragement, so make an effort to acknowledge the good things your child does every day within his earshot. For instance, tell his dad, “Peter did all his chores today without prompting.” He’ll get to bask in the glow of your praise and his dad’s heartening response. And be specific. Instead of saying “Good job,” say, “Thank you for setting the table for dinner.” This will enhance his sense of accomplishment and self-worth and let him know exactly what he did right.
Listen well. If your child needs to talk, stop and listen to what he has to say. He needs to know that his thoughts, feelings, desires, and opinions matter. Help him get comfortable with his emotions by labeling them. Say, “I understand you’re sad because you can’t go to the sleepover.” By accepting his emotions without judgment, you validate his feelings and show that you value what he has to say. If you share your own feelings (“I’m worried about Grandma. She’s very sick”), he’ll gain confidence in expressing his own.
Resist comparisons. Comments such as “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” or “Why can’t you be nice like Evan?” will just remind your child of where he struggles in a way that fosters shame, envy, and competition. Even positive comparisons, such as “You’re the best player” are potentially damaging because a child can find it hard to live up to this image. If you let your child know that you appreciate him for the unique individual he is, he’ll be more likely to value himself too.
Offer empathy. If your child compares himself unfavorably to his siblings or peers (“Why can’t I throw a football like Nicholas?”), show him empathy and then emphasize one of his strengths. For instance, say, “You’re right. Nicholas is good at throwing a football. And you’re a fast runner.” This can help your child learn that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that he doesn’t have to be perfect to feel good about himself.
Provide encouragement. Every child needs the kind of support from loved ones that signals, “I believe in you. I see your effort. Keep going!” Encouragement means acknowledging progress — not just rewarding achievement. So if your child is struggling with a math problem, say: “You’re trying very hard and you almost have it!” instead of “Not like that. Let me do it.”
There’s a difference between praise and encouragement. One rewards the task while the other rewards the person (“You did it!” rather than “I’m proud of you!”). Praise can make a child feel that he’s only “good” if he does something perfectly. Encouragement, on the other hand, acknowledges the effort. “Tell me about the game. I saw you really hustling out there” is more helpful than saying, “You’re the best player on the team.” Too much praise can sap self-esteem because it can create pressure to perform and set up a continual need for approval from others. So dole out the praise judiciously and offer encouragement liberally; it will help your child grow up to feel good about himself.