What Is Self-Esteem and How Can Your Child Develop It?

In his 1969 book The Psychology of Self-EsteemNathaniel Branden defined self-esteem as “…the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.” According to Branden, self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth). It exists as a consequence of the implicit judgment that every person does about, on one side, his/her ability to face life’s challenges — that is, to understand and solve problems and, on the other side, his right to achieve happiness or, in other words, to respect and defend his own interests and needs. This two-factor approach, as some have also called it, provides a balanced definition that seems to be capable of dealing with limits of defining self-esteem primarily in terms of competence or worth alone.

Self esteem can be nurtured in children using the following techniques:

  • Watch what you say. Children are very sensitive to their parents’ words. Remember to praise your child not only for a job well done, but also for effort. But be truthful. For example, if your child doesn’t make the soccer team, avoid saying something like, “Well, next time you’ll work harder and make it.” Instead, try saying, “Well, you didn’t make the team, but I’m really proud of the effort you put into it.” Reward effort and completion instead of outcome.
  • Be a positive role model. If you’re excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your child may eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your child will have a great role model.
  • Identify and redirect your child’s inaccurate beliefs. It’s important for parents to identify their children’s irrational beliefs about themselves, whether they’re about perfection, attractiveness, ability or anything else. Helping kids set more accurate standards and being more realistic in evaluating themselves will help them have a healthy self-concept. Inaccurate perceptions of self can take root and become reality to kids. For example, a child who does very well in school but struggles with math may say, “I can’t do math. I’m a bad student.” Not only is this a false generalization, it’s also a belief that will set the child up for failure. Encourage your children to see a situation in its true light. A helpful response might be “You are a good student. You do well in school. Math is just a subject that you need to spend more time on. We’ll work on it together.”
  • Be spontaneous and affectionate. Your love will go a long way to boost your child’s self-esteem. Give hugs and tell your children you’re proud of them. Pop a note in your child’s lunchbox that reads, “I think you’re terrific!” Give praise frequently and honestly, without overdoing it. Children can tell whether something comes from the heart.
  • Give positive, accurate feedback. Comments like “You always work yourself up into such a frenzy!” will make your children feel like they have no control over their outbursts. A better statement is, “You were really mad at your brother. But I appreciate that you didn’t yell at him or hit him.” This acknowledges a child’s feelings, rewards the choice made, and encourages the child to make the right choice again next time.
  • Create a safe, loving home environment. Children who don’t feel safe or are abused at home will suffer immensely from low self-esteem. A child who is exposed to parents who fight and argue repeatedly may become depressed and withdrawn. Also watch for signs of abuse by others, problems in school, trouble with peers, and other factors that may affect your child’s self-esteem. Deal with these issues sensitively but swiftly. And always remember to respect your children.
  • Help kids become involved in constructive experiences. Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem. For example, mentoring programs in which an older child helps a younger one learn to read can do wonders for both children.

(These recommendations come from David V. Sheslow, Ph.D., Chief Psychologist, Division of Behavioral Health, Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, DE.)

On average, self-esteem is relatively high in childhood, drops during adolescence (particularly for girls), rises gradually throughout adulthood and then declines sharply in old age. Individuals who have relatively high self-esteem at one point in time tend to have relatively high self-esteem years later. (Robins and Trzesniewski, 2005)

Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (Nash Publishing Corporation, 1969), pp. 1-2.

David V. Sheslow, Ph.D., “Developing Your Child’s Self-Esteem,” Kid’s Health Online (www.kidshealth.org), November 2008.

Richard W. Robins and Kali H. Trzesniewski, “Self-Esteem Development Across the Lifespan,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2005, pp. 158-162.

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