The best part of my job is when I get to help families support and nurture kids’ mental health. One of the primary ways we do that is by building young peoples’ self-esteem. Positive self-esteem in kids is characterized by a feeling of positive self-worth, general optimism, a willingness to try new things, and a resilient, “I think I can” attitude.
Youngsters with low self-esteem tend to feel bad about themselves. They’re hard on themselves. They think that they’re not good enough. Unchecked, these thoughts tend to build. Eventually, parents bring their kids to come to see my team with symptoms of anxiety, depression and the socio-behavioral issues that accompany those thought patterns.
The good news is that you can help your kids before their mental health goes that route.
I think about building kids’ self-esteem like I think about nurturing a plant: the right environment and nutrients (that is, input from you) goes a long way to strengthening roots and core vitality. This way, someday, they can weather life’s storms on their own.
Depending on the child’s age, there are a number of ways you can nurture them to future health and resilience.
Toddlers: Reassure and build self-confidence
Positive self-esteem starts developing as early as infancy and toddlerhood. No, babies cannot think highly or poorly of themselves, but they can feel secure in the world. Respond quickly to your little one’s needs so they learn they’re safe and cared for.
Also, establish at least a loose routine. Experts at the Department of Health and Human Services report that babies and toddlers who settle into daily and weekly structured rhythms develop self-confidence early on. Those foundational beliefs are a stabilizing factor as a kid grows.
In toddlerhood, we get to see the process of rapprochement, where developing children begin wandering away from their caregivers to explore the immediate area, only to return quickly for reassurance. As they venture further and further away, you’ll notice your youngster will sometimes settle for a glance back at you instead of taking the time to run all the way back to your arms. During this phase, encourage the exploration and praise your child’s bravery.
As preschoolers gain more and more independence, begin offering them choices. For example…
- “Would you rather have jelly or honey on your peanut butter sandwich today?”
- “Do you think we should go to the park before or after the library?”
- “Which shirt would you like to wear today?”
- “Choose a way to help today: feed the dog, water the plants or sort the laundry. Or all three!”
These options give little kids a sense of self. They feel they’re in control of something, without feeling pressure to plan and coordinate the whole day like a parent.
School-aged children: Encourage trying new things
At this stage, the most important thing to know about kids and self-esteem is that they’ll begin comparing themselves to their peers. “Am I the smartest? Am I the fastest? Am I the funniest?” are all questions that repeat in the minds of school-aged kids.
One of the best ways to develop self-esteem in your school-aged youngsters is to encourage them to try new things. And when they lose at a game or challenge, assure them failure is part of success, and to not give up, but try again.
Also, when they fail in larger ways, don’t be harsh. You may choose to administer consequences, but watch your words and tones. Insults, name-calling and yelling can hurt a child’s perception of self.
Also, like in toddlerhood, prioritize a (flexible) family routine. Rhythms allow you to spend time with your kid, exploring with them and allowing yourself to get interested in the things they love. They’re exploring themselves right now, choosing activities and dabbling in hobbies to decide what kind of person they want to be. Again, your encouragement here is key.
Teens: Be a healthy role model
If you’ve read the above tips and felt you may have missed your opportunity, don’t believe it. It’s never too late to start building a child’s self-esteem—even if they’re self-aware teenagers, seemingly stuck in their ways.
Start by assessing your family dynamics. In July 2021, experts at the National Institutes for Health published a report that says it best: “Because family members rely on each other for emotional, physical, and economic support, they are one of the primary sources of relationship security or stress.”
Conflicts, arguing, stress, rigidity, harsh demands, fractured familial relationships, instability, unclear communication, confusion, role reversal and isolation are all family dynamics you can influence to diminish their negative impact on a teen’s burgeoning sense of self-worth. Those troubles take your attention away from kids, leaving young people without guidance in their everyday struggles.
Instead, model mental, emotional and social health yourself. Teens look to nearby adults—that’s you and me—for examples of trajectories they can take. If they see you’re warm, confident, assertive and resilient in the face of setbacks, they’ll know that’s an option for them, too. One of the best things you can demonstrate for them is the brave curiosity it takes to try new things.
I’ll use myself as an example. When I was a teen, I didn’t have positive self-esteem. But my parents encouraged me to try new things. So I did. And when I did different activities, I made more friends and learned from mistakes.
These experiences gave me a sense of ownership over the outcomes of every decision. Eventually, I decided to give medical school a shot. My parents supported me, but at the end of the day, I knew I had control over the results I got by making smart daily choices.
As you can see, trying new things boosts a young person’s sense of self-worth in a variety of ways. But you’re not limited to just that. You can also…
- Have your teen write down negative thoughts and refute them with the positive, realistic truth. Then, encourage them to replace those unwanted mental loops with their new optimistic affirmations.
- Praise the effort they put in—not the outcome. Instead of applauding your teen’s wins, champion their attempts, no matter how they turn out.
- Discuss and practice assertiveness at home. Give teens tough choices and let them decide not to do things if they don’t want to (but then let them live with the outcome). Discuss the difference between assertive and combative. And if you’re feeling particularly helpful, role play some common scenarios that may require your teen to think quickly and speak assertively.
- Talk about where everyone’s worth originates. Social media comparison and engagement is a toxic measure of self-worth. But how you adhere to your values is a great measure of self-worth. Talk about this with your teen regularly and ask how they’re managing their desire for superficial approval.
Prevention is the best mental health medicine
Do the above steps seem simple? If so, you’re right—they are. However, they do take time. Implementing the above action requires regular effort. And over time, we tend to deprioritize these things for more immediate distractions like social media, video games, binge watching and other forms of entertainment. To steer your ship back on course, simply brainstorm times during your current routines to work in some (or all) of these tips.
Too often, parents bring kids into my office with signs of low self-esteem. Typically, the kid’s perspective is accompanied by depression, eating disorders, anxiety, substance abuse problems, destructive behavior, self-harm and more. In some cases (not all), these could have been prevented earlier on with the above factors.
Thankfully, though, there are ways for every child to feel better. Sometimes, kids just need a little extra help. Ready to talk to an expert about your child’s self-esteem? Find a doctor near you today.
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