A positive self-esteem is your child’s prescription to happiness and success in life. Self-esteem can be defined as feeling capable of achievement as well as feeling loved and deserving encouragement. Every day of childhood presents new challenges and opportunities for putting self-esteem to the test. Building positive self-esteem in your children provides a foundation for achieving competence throughout each developmental stage and is essential to their optimal mental health.
According to the American Psychological Association, mental health is an essential part of children’s overall health and has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society.
Both physical and mental health affect how we think, feel and act on the inside and outside. One early childhood aspect of mental health includes healthy social emotional development. This can be thought of as children understanding who they are, their feelings and their ability to express and manage those feelings while establishing relationships with others.
Social emotional development will influence all other areas of your child’s development. Mental and social emotional health are shaped by experiences early on in childhood. Developing loving, positive relationships with those around them helps children to feel safety, comfort and positive self-esteem. These relationships will also help kids learn to experience and manage emotions as well as to learn to express themselves. It is important for children to develop loving relationships early on in order to gain an understanding of trust, compassion for others and a sense of right and wrong.
As children develop their own sense of independence and demonstrate initiative, they develop a sense of personhood. This allows them to understand where they fit in among their family, peers, neighborhood and society. When this fit feels comfortable, kids feel competent as effective members of their family, school and community. A poor fit can put children at risk for long-term negative consequences related to mental health.
As your child develops a sense of self and independence, healthy peer relationships become important. By school age, having friends becomes more emotionally important. Some aspects that influence this shift in your child’s thinking include increased awareness of body image, increased academic challenges, independence from family and an overall ability to understand others more clearly.
By middle school, your children are figuring out where they belong in their world. Peer acceptance is an important aspect of this stage as they are developing a sense of self. Peer pressure, or pressure to conform to a specific group, and bullying may arise as a concern around this time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that children who feel good about themselves are more able to resist peer pressure and make good decisions for themselves. The CDC defines bullying as unwanted aggressive behavior by another youth or group involving observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. There are many places that bullying can occur in a child’s environment, both in person or through technology. Positive self-esteem is a crucial protective factor to help your child resist peer pressure and stand up to bullying.
As parents, when contemplating how to instill good self-esteem in your child, it is important to consider aspects of how this was promoted in your childhood and reflect on how this influences the way you parent.
The most challenging part of promoting your child’s self-esteem may be the fact that you cannot control it. There is no prescription or secret formula to crack the code of how to be positive. Instead you need to think about how to provide your children the tools they need to overcome the challenges of life. There are many ways to promote self-esteem. Consider the following suggestions.
1. Help your child to identify strengths while recognizing the appropriate level of ability. It is important to build on strengths when promoting competence of a new skill. Choosing activities that are developmentally appropriate — not necessarily age-appropriate — is very important to challenge your child realistically. Some confidence-building activities could include karate, theater group or even dance classes.
2. Offer praise that is specific and earned. Overpraising kids or complimenting for minor accomplishments can present the risk of letting your children feel that they no longer need to push themselves — leading to them possibly lowering their standards. Pointing out their specific accomplishments empowers kids to tackle new challenges.
3. Provide healthy exposure to new skills and risks for failure. This allows your children the ability to learn how to navigate conflict. As a parent, you can help to promote problem-solving skills by standing back and letting your kids find their way through small obstacles instead of immediately rescuing them from failure. Learning how to solve simple problems sets the stage for confidence in solving even bigger problems later in life. Helping your children learn how to respond when things go wrong provides them with a lifelong skill they will use on a daily basis.
4. Promote responsibility by offering realistic choices when there is a choice. Encourage your child to help decide on the family’s dinner menu or other family tasks. Offer opportunities to demonstrate competence. Typically, chores or tasks around the house can be useful to acknowledge and celebrate your child’s contribution to the home and family.
5. Reassurance of unconditional love simultaneously promotes your child’s self-worth and positive self-esteem. Be mindful of the language you use when talking about where your child might have room for improvement. Consider carving out protected time alone with your child at least once a week, which could include playing a board game, preparing a meal together or taking a walk. Ultimately your child will just enjoy being with you. Implementing a no-electronic rule during this time goes a long way to make your child feel loved, accepted and that she belongs.
It is natural for the way we feel about ourselves to sway up and down over time. However, it is very important to recognize signs of low self-esteem and when to be concerned. If you notice that your child becomes consistently down, talks negatively about himself, avoids new tasks by shutting down without even trying, loses interest in pleasurable activities — or if there is decline in grades — you should reach out to your child’s primary care provider, teachers and even guidance counselor for further evaluation to make sure your child’s needs are best supported.
When I was growing up, the best advice my dad shared with me was to always do my best, whether I was taking the SATs, competing in a swim race or auditioning for a play. He did not say, “You really should be getting As, not Bs,” or “You should have gotten first place, not tenth.” I’m not exactly sure when I developed my own sense of self-esteem but knowing that no matter what I would remain loved and accepted by my dad always gave me the courage to follow his advice.
Every child has the right to a happy, healthy life. Developing an early action plan to promote positive self-esteem will set your child on the right path to achieve life-long success.
Lyndsy Wittmer, MSN, RN, CRNP, PMHS, is a PNP in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She recently attained certification as a Pediatric Primary Care Mental Health Specialist. She also serves as a part-time faculty member at Villanova University.