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Helping your child to increase their self-esteem

photo of child laughing

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Recent research has emphasised the importance of how we think and feel about ourselves as being fundamental to success in schools, at home and in later life.

The ability to share, listen to others, manage success and disappointment as well as develop empathy, are all part of having positive self-esteem. This leads to a sense of self-confidence, the ability to form trusting relationships and the development of skills which help us manage, challenge and change.

Children and young people with low self-esteem often view themselves as unlikeable, unlovable, worthless and incompetent and this can result in self-pity, showing off or bragging, fear of taking on new learning challenges or over-estimating capabilities. There may also be difficulty in forming trusting friendships and relationships with others.

Our confidence, or lack of it, is often thought to have its roots in early childhood. Children with low esteem are often seen as hostile; however, it is the child's feelings of inadequacy and self-blame which leads to outward signs of not being able to manage.

Some signs of low esteem

Please remember these are only guidelines to think about; many youngsters will exhibit signs of one or more. But you as a parent, will know when to be concerned.

The child or young person:

  • never volunteers information
  • is unable to identify a strength
  • often put themselves down
  • avoids eye contact
  • is withdrawn
  • never or rarely asks for clarification of anything
  • is inconsiderate towards siblings or parents
  • have no friends or say they don't want friends
  • cannot join in or share any activity
  • will only operate on their own terms
  • seeks to control others
  • has a tendency to bully
  • tells tales
  • boasts or has an inappropriate sense of own ability
  • always seems unhappy
  • does not look forward to events, occasions or any change
  • acts as though he/she is the adult in the family.

How to enhance self-esteem

  • Listen to your child and try not to interrupt. Try to set aside five minutes daily. If you disagree with your child's views, try to understand their point of view whilst also sharing your view e.g. "I understand that you...".
  • Involve yourself in your child's life by asking them what went well each day and also by talking about your day and what went well for you.
  • Encourage your child to share and problem solve any difficulties one by one but don't press if they don't want to share. You will not be able, indeed you should not, 'shelter' your child from the consequences of their actions, but you can help them to see possible actions and consequences so that they can make decisions.
  • Use positive body language and smile. For instance, crossing your arms may result in a hostile reaction from them.
  • Show fairness and consistency. Try to set agreed limits.
  • Make 'child appropriate' demands of your child. Children who try to take on adult responsibilities too early may not develop self-confidence.
  • Help your child to identify strengths. Make a chart or list of strengths and always work from your child's strengths when trying to deal with less successful events.
  • Try to create situations where your child can make decisions and choices.
  • Encourage your child to have friends. Try to have the friends home and encourage social exchange. This may include helping your child to be involved in an interest or hobby or to join a club.
  • Encourage your child to try to understand another's point of view even if they don't always agree with that view. At home, a set of family cards can be made with a picture of a member of the family on each. Sort the cards and invite everyone to take a card that doesn't represent them; encourage them to try to see things from another's point of view.
  • Help your child set realistic goals and targets. Helping to set realistic targets ensures success and can be built on. Encourage charts to help measure progress.
  • Support your child's interests. Supporting your dance/football crazy youngster sends them positive messages about how you view them.
  • Be positive about mistakes. Build in the message that making mistakes is part of growing and learning.
  • Encourage your child. Help your child try new things.
  • Give your child small tasks of responsibility appropriate to their age.
  • Be aware of your child's needs. If you know a child finds change difficult, find a way of marking/measuring the time to the event happening; use a calendar or encourage the youngster to find their own way of recording.
  • Try to do something in collaboration with your child, for example, making a cake, shopping, tinkering with the car.
  • Be honest with your child. If you have something difficult to say, try to choose a quiet time when neither of you is rushing to do something.
  • Be realistic in your expectations for your child. Talk to your child to get a sense of their understanding of abilities/achievements.
  • Try to ensure that you use praise that is meaningful to the child. A child who is constantly praised or who devalues their efforts will not find the praise encouraging. For example, a child who thinks their piece of writing is rubbish, will not find general praise encouraging but might be helped by some more specific comments, that also reflect that you understand how he or she feels (e.g. instead of "that's a good effort, I think it's really wonderful", you might say "I understand that it's not as good as you want it to be, but your spelling is better than last time" or "you've remembered four out of the five points from the book" etc.,).
  • Talk to your child's teacher about ways in which you can jointly help develop self-esteem at home and at school.

Development of self-esteem

Critical feelings influence the development of self-esteem

Research has suggested that there are five critical feelings, which influence the individual's development of self-esteem. These are:
  • a sense of security
  • a sense of identity
  • a sense of belonging
  • a sense of purpose
  • a sense of competence

Ages and stages in development

There are, of course, ages and stages in childhood development; infancy to early childhood; childhood to adolescence; adolescence and young adulthood. These days, it is often difficult to establish where one stage begins and another ends.

Childhood can be described as the period between 5 and 11 which is characterised by children developing a sense of self through watching, listening and copying others both at home and at school. This is a time when other people's opinions greatly influence the child's self-concept. It is also a time when children begin to form a sense of both group and same sex identity - joining clubs and sharing interests is part of this stage as is developing the ability to make friends.

Adolescence, approximately between the ages of 11 and 17, is a time of tremendous upheaval and is a time when most young people seem to want to be different in the same way! Nevertheless, it is a time when the ability to cope with the basic challenges and sense of being worthy of happiness are under threat and self-esteem is fragile.

Page information

  • Updated: 29 Aug 2012
  • Katharine Sharpe
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