One of the most common issues I come across when working with children is poor self-esteem. We all have times when we feel bad about ourselves. But kids are trying to find their identity. They are learning what they are good at and what they aren't. They are working out how they are the same and different to others and if this is important. Self-esteem is developing right throughout our lives but it is particularly important during childhood. It is in the early years that we are gathering information about ourselves and making conclusions on our worth that can stick with us into adulthood.
When we talk about self-esteem, what do we really mean? Self-esteem is basically how good you feel about yourself. You don't have to like everything about yourself, but having a good self-esteem means that you recognise that you have value. In other words, self-esteem may be defined as how much you appreciate and like yourself even when things don't work out or you haven't done well. Your self-esteem is made up of:
Feeling of security
Sense of belonging
Feeling of competence
When we break it down into these points, no wonder kids struggle with self-esteem. They haven't had the life experience to develop any these yet. They are learning everything, including where they fit in.
Why self esteem is important Kids who feel good about themselves have the confidence to try new things. They are not overly afraid of making mistakes. They are able to be proud of their effort as they don't hold their worth in their achievements. When they aren't overly focused on the outcome, they are more likely to try their best. As a result, self-esteem helps kids do better at school, at home, and with friends.
Kids with low self-esteem feel unsure of themselves. They don't try to join in or make friends because they think others won't accept them (they don't even accept themselves so why would others?). They may be susceptible to bullying and be less likely to stick up for themselves. They may give up easily, or not try at all. Kids with low self-esteem find it hard to cope when they make a mistake, lose, or fail. They hold their worth in their achievements rather than who they are as a person. As a result, they may not do as well as they could. It is a vicious cycle.
How can we help build their Self-esteem
Often parents with the best of intentions will flood their child with praise, thinking that this will build their self-esteem. If you are telling them how great they are they will feel good about themselves right? Not necessarily. In fact too much general praise like "good job", "you're so clever" can actually have a negative impact. Praise can seem conditional and controlling. If we say "good girl/good boy", does that mean when we don't praise them that they are "bad"? It leaves a child feeling as though their acceptance is dependent on their behaviour and not them as a person. When we use praise as a way to control behaviour, chances are kids will push against it. Manipulation gets resistance even if it is through praise. So if praise isn't the answer what can we do?
Focus praise on the effort
When we praise our kids make sure that we are praising the effort it took to achieve, not just the achievement. You can say "I noticed you tried to sound out those words and didn't give up" or "wow, you worked hard on that", rather than "you are such a good reader". When we focus on the effort our children feel like they have made progress. This builds their self-esteem because it was something that they were able to put in the effort and get an outcome. Kids will see that with effort comes progress, they become motivate to do things for themselves.
As children are learning of course they need our help. We have to show them and guide them, but don't be so quick to swoop in and do everything for them. Your child will build self-esteem by being able to master things for themselves. They will see that even with mistakes that they can achieve. When we take over all the time we rob them from developing their sense of independence. This goes for problems-solving too. Don't always jump in and tell kids what they need to do or how to fix things. Ask them "what do you think"? They may not know and will need you to tell them but the more we have them practice, the more confident they will become in their own abilities.
Help them find their strengths:
Everyone has strengths but we don't always realise what they are. Our kids may have strengths that are different to ours, they may even be things that drive us crazy, but if we find their strength we need to build on that. They may have a great attention to detail which means that they are slow or have to get things just right. This can be frustrating at times but it is a strength when they are doing Lego or coding, technical drawing or any number of things. While kids are trying to work out who they are, they may have any number of new interests. It is important to let them try different things until they find "their thing". When I try and help kids identify their strengths and get a real foundation in who they are, I use an activity I developed called "The Tree of me". This is a fun activity that helps kids see who it is that loves and supports them, what their character traits are and what their strengths are.
As children grow older friendships become increasingly important. Having people outside of your family love and accept you for who you are is vital for self-esteem. We don't always like who our kids become friends with but as long as they are positive relationships for our child, then we need to support them. When we find friends we find our tribe, our people who "get" us. Friends should be encouraging and supportive. Sometimes these friendships aren't building self-esteem and can actually be damaging. This can be hard for kids to see so a good place to start is the "self-esteem bucket" activity. This helps kids see what builds their self-esteem and what takes from it. By doing this kids can see what might not be working in their friendships and you can then problem-solve with them on what to do next.
While some kids are naturally more positive, self-esteem is something that is developing in everyone. It is important for us to see as parents that we can influence how our children develop their self-esteem. Self-esteem isn't all about hearing praise. It is having a sense of worth in who you are and a security in that you are capable no matter what. As parents we can direct and guide our children to see this worth and develop their own confidence in their abilities.