By Sarah Jeanne Browne
What we say to kids matters. How we respond to their needs matters. As a parent or guardian, you are a role model to your children, and your values impact theirs. What we say to any child impacts the development of their self-esteem. How we interact with them impacts their self-worth, their ability to love themselves. Our compassionate touch impacts an ability to reach them in even their worst moments. Our relationship with them impacts everything.
If we understand the power we have to help them develop self-esteem, we can help kids to become all that they are meant to be. They will mirror us, and it’s up to us to redirect their values. This is also referred to as a “psychological mirror” according to Center For Parenting Education. Once they see us doing something, they will want to do it too. They will want to become us. How we treat them inspires them to become who they are.
Children need our attention and support to help develop their self-esteem. In order to be kind to themselves, they must first feel good about themselves and about how you see them. When we lift them up, it’s so they can learn to lift themselves up. When we tell them they are enough and worthy of love, it’s so they can learn to look in the mirror and say, “I am enough and worthy of love.”
Self-esteem is a way for children to develop healthy relationships and pursue ambitious goals as well. Having confidence comes from good self-esteem. When they have good self-esteem, they respond to change and difficult circumstances with more resilience than they would otherwise. “Kids with positive self-esteem feel confident and capable” according to Bob Cunningham, EdM and one of the experts in learning development at Understood.
When children have low self-esteem, they compare themselves to others. They are more critical of themselves. They don’t have a strong sense of self or direction. They are less likely to try again if they fail at something.
Here are four simple ways to encourage self-esteem in children:
It’s not just about the words you say to kids; it’s also about how you treat them. Do you treat them as though they are capable? Do you help them to develop skills in a variety of areas? If you never challenge them to do more, they’ll never explore their skill sets. That’s what they need to develop self-esteem.
Without confidence to try new things, they’ll lean into their own comfort zone and never challenge themselves. Lead them to feel capable on their own. At the same time, allow them to be a child while you fuel their interests and explorations. This will not only make them happy, but they will learn who they are through these actions.
Set goals with them. What do they want to accomplish in the short term versus the long term? And don’t forget to remind them how far they’ve already come! If they have a focus, they will find their footing in this world. They will learn to just focus on what they want to become rather than what happens to them. They will be defined by taking each step forward.
Let them assist you, and give them choices. If they want something, give them a task that will help them earn it. This will ignite their independence and intrinsic motivation the most. They can learn to feel good about themselves simply for doing good. If you can instill that value, their self-worth will grow.
Give Compassionate Attention
When children feel inadequate, they look to us to pick themselves up. We can meet those needs through compassionate attention. They will mirror you in how you treat them with how they treat themselves.
For example, you can give them compassionate attention and teach them to give it themselves. Compassionate attention, as defined by Mary Welford , “involves focusing on things with our compassionate mind. It may be helpful to think of attention as a spotlight, while compassion is the torch we choose to see.” ( This means we must teach compassion for oneself to kids in order to have a healthy self-esteem. By modeling how we would care for ourselves and others, kids learn to not only feel better about themselves when something goes wrong, they also learn to treat others with a certain level of care that builds healthy relationships. This starts with the relationship with themselves, the most important one of all. You can be the one to teach them to value that. The Greater Good Magazine by UC Berkeley suggests “parents can role-model compassionate actions in their own lives by how they respond to the suffering of others.” Kids can copy compassion by learning how we respond to others in need. They can have compassion for themselves because of our actions. They can cope better using kindness towards themselves and others if they are going through something difficult.
If kids are hard on themselves, you can help them imagine how they would treat someone else in the same situation. What if someone else like their friend or sibling went through the same thing? What would your child say to them? Have them say that exact sentiment to themselves. Often, we are kinder to others going through something than we are to ourselves. This reverses that attitude and helps them see they, too, are worthy of compassionate attention.
Praise is important, but there are ways we can overdo it. How we praise also makes a difference in our child’s life. Scholastic.com says that we should not over praise, or jump in to fix things all the time. We should “resist making it all better.” Giving them chances to develop is the best way to help a child feel capable. Scholastic also says that when you praise your child, be specific. Don’t just tell them they did a good job; tell them how they did a good job. If you praise with a constant “good job” but don’t provide any depth or details, kids will fail to see how they are really doing. They will regard their efforts unnoteworthy and tune out the same statements said to them over and over again. This is about making a real connection with your child in letting them know that they are capable. Kids count on us for reassurance, and that reassurance leads to resilience.
Use your praise to show the right priorities. If they are playing a game and lose, let them know how well they did on a specific part of the game and how you are proud of them for putting in all their effort. Practice good sportsmanship by having them congratulate the opposing team members. It’s not just praising your child that will lead to good self-esteem; it’s what you praise and how that will lead them to discover their values.
There is also a way to give constructive criticism. In articulating to children that we, as adults, are not perfect, we let them in to the big secret that nobody is. People are allowed to mess up. Make that okay. Make it okay to apologize or make something right if they do. Help them to try again and define themselves not by their errors, but by their attitudes.
Self-love sustains us, and it’s how we develop self-esteem. Love must be shown through example and directed in order for kids to know they can love themselves. Remind children that they are worthy of love. This doesn’t mean they have to always hear praise. When we have an inflated ego from constant praise without pushing towards progress, hat is not self-love. Self-love is a sense of having worth that comes from living their values. They will look to you for who to be. You will reflect back to them the right values. Being authentic with them counts, especially when you make mistakes. But even when you go astray, it’s okay to be human and mess up sometimes. It’s what we do with what happens that counts. That’s why self-esteem is not about achievements or what we have or don’t have. It’s about how we feel about the choices we make. And at the end of the day, you can lead them into good self-esteem by being there for them no matter what. That consistency will help the most.
Have them come up with a list of things they like about themselves. Do this often, as it will serve at any age and through any trial. They will develop self-love and fuel their self-esteem. They will learn to see themselves as good, which is what we want them to do. They will know their self-worth not just by what you say about them but by what they say about themselves. Remind them that it’s not about what they do, but about who they are. In the process, they will find self-love. And they will know they are whole in and of themselves, and not defined by anything else. Psychology Today states that for everyone to develop self esteem and develop self-worth, one can write three things they like about themselves each day. Then, in the morning, read it and add to it again every night for 30 days. You can do this as often as you like and adapt it to your child’s routine. Overall, this practice can lead them for life. Do this with them so they can mirror your positive self-worth. This will help them develop resilience and redirects their focus from negative thoughts.
They will also be better able to love others if they have self-love. If they accept themselves, they will be able to accept others. They will even make the world a better place. They will open up more. They will love life, love themselves, love others. Their self-esteem will flourish. Love is what it’s all about.
Kids Health from Nemours says that “Self-esteem helps kids cope with mistakes. It helps kids try again, even if they fail at first. As a result, self-esteem helps kids do better at school, at home, and with friends.” Once a child has good self-esteem, they will not only perform better, they will prioritize better. They will have a greater vision for what they do. It’s about honoring who they are and who they want to be. After all, that’s what makes people feel good about themselves. So start today with a word or two about the person you see them becoming. They will know that they are capable of more and will learn to live through that awareness. They will lead, and they will love. Most of all, they will not fear failure or let negative thoughts or emotions cloud their judgements. They will have clarity. That’s all they need to find out what matters and stand tall in their decisions. That’s the power of self-esteem!