An Expert Shares How to Help Kids Build Self-Esteem

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

As parents, few things are as important to us as seeing our kids thrive. We want them to seize every opportunity, conquer every obstacle, and fuel what fulfills them. Much of this begins with knowing their self-worth. It’s clear to us just how special our kids are and how much they have to offer the world—we want them to believe it, too.

This is where self-esteem comes into play. Parents and caregivers can help kids build their self-esteem so that they grow confidence, conquer their fears, and reach for the stars. We wanted to get to the bottom of how to do just that.

Like many things in life, building self-esteem is a skill that can be mastered and actually fostered with the help of influential adults in kids’ lives. To learn more about this subject, we wanted to get an expert’s advice on how to help kids build self-esteem. We looked to Rachel Tomlinson, Registered Psychologist and Author of the children’s book, A Blue Kind of Day. With expertise in parenting, mental health, and child development and well-being, she had plenty of insights to share. Read on for expert advice on how to help kids build self-esteem—plus why it’s important!

Meet the expert
Rachel Tomlinson
Rachel Tomlinson is both a Registered Psychologist, owner of Toward Wellbeing, and author. With a focus on parenting, mental health, and child development and well-being, Rachel provides workshops, 1:1 consultations, speaking events, and more.

What is Self-Esteem and Why Does it Matter?

Right off the bat, we wanted to dive into what self-esteem is from a psychological standpoint and what makes it important in our daily lives. According to Tomlinson, self-esteem can be thought of as how you feel about yourself, both your internal and external qualities. She went on to explain that how you feel about yourself not only impacts the value you place on yourself, but also how you think others perceive you. Depending on whether or not we see ourselves as worthy and valuable will impact how we expect and allow others to treat us.

Tomlinson also shared, “Positive self-esteem means that you like yourself, you believe you (including your opinions, ideas, and emotions) are valuable and worthy of respect.” Without a proper sense of self-esteem, we can see how easy it would be to never speak up for ourselves—even in harmful situations—never voice our opinions, and struggle to have the confidence it takes to achieve our goals. A strong sense of self-worth tells us that we have valuable contributions to give to the world through our work, goals, and relationships.

how to help kids build self esteem
Source: @sopharush

What Positive Self-Worth Looks Like

Knowing how to recognize what a positive view of self looks like will help us foster it within our children. According to Tomlinson, when people have positive self-esteem, they don’t hold themselves back from sharing their opinions and thoughts or expressing their needs. Because they view these things as valuable, they allow themselves to share them with others. She also explained that it goes beyond physical qualities like appearances. Instead, it also includes our internal self—our likes, dislikes, beliefs, opinions, and so on.

“Positive self-esteem means that you like yourself, you believe you (including your opinions, ideas, and emotions) are valuable and worthy of respect.”

On the flip side, we wanted to know if it was possible for someone to have too much self-esteem. Tomlinson’s answer was twofold. She shared that self-esteem in itself is a positive thing. However, it can change the behavior of a person, sometimes in negative ways. These negative manifestations can look like overconfidence or overestimating one’s skills or abilities. On an even more personal level, it can impact relationships. If someone holds themselves higher than those around them, Tomlinson explained, they may not be able to consider the needs, thoughts, and feelings of others. A positive sense of self-worth not only means we value ourselves. It also means we’re able to respect those around us.

How to Help Kids Build Self-Esteem

What Tomlinson shared about how to help kids build self-esteem was pretty genius. She explained that because self-worth is all about self-perception, we need to give kids the opportunity to achieve. She went on to explain that this doesn’t mean letting them win every board game during family game night. Instead, we can “Help them learn the skills to persevere, to problem solve, and to give them emotional regulation tools to help them manage setbacks and challenges.”

There are several daily practices we can implement to help them learn these invaluable skills:

Find Their Areas of Interest

A great first step parents can take is to help their kids find their areas of interest. This means letting them explore different hobbies and sports that they’re curious about. When they find one or several they enjoy, offer them encouragement and opportunities to practice. When they see their efforts starting to pay off and they begin to do well, be sure to praise them for the hard work they’ve put in.

Talk Through Problems

As adults, we’ve learned that not everything goes as planned, and sometimes the problems we run into can be overwhelming. When a problem arises for our little ones, we should talk it through with them to make it more manageable. For example, maybe they’re working on perfecting their painting skills but can’t seem to nail a certain technique. Instead of giving up, we can help them create a plan to overcome the problem they’re facing. Maybe this involves watching tutorials or starting with simpler techniques that will build their artistic abilities. Not only does this show our support of their endeavors, but it breaks up obstacles into more manageable pieces.

Help Them Practice New Skills

In the same vein, parents can give kids the space to discuss their interests and help them practice new skills they may need to succeed. If a kid wants to become better at basketball, parents can aid this effort by shooting hoops with them, watching the sport with them, and discussing how to better their techniques.

Provide Positive Responses to Negative Self-Talk

As kids are learning, there are bound to be some bumps in the road. These bumps may be accompanied by negative self-talk. When we catch these moments, we can provide justification as to why it’s not true. When we hear the words, “I never win anything!” we can respond by bringing up a time when they did succeed. Having real-life examples of when they did win can give credit to our words of encouragement and make them more believable.

Introduce the Power of Yet

When the negative self-talk inevitably does come up, we can also use this as a discussion opener. We can explain why it’s normal to not be perfect at something when we’re just starting. For example, “You can’t ride your bike without training wheels, yet.”

Practice Using Positive Affirmations

A way to build self-esteem is by talking kindly to oneself. An easy way to do this is by practicing using positive affirmations each day. These affirmations are typically “I am” statements that call out positive attributes of the self. Examples include, “I am a good friend,” and “I am capable of doing hard things.” Getting kids in the rhythm of speaking positively about themselves can help them internalize these beliefs. Affirmations are great for parents too, and kids can learn a lot by seeing their parents speak kindly to themselves.

Source: @fulchersunfiltered

Give Them Opportunities to Achieve

As we now know, a major aspect of self-esteem development is achievement. Sometimes parents can unintentionally hinder the possibility of achievement by being overprotective. This generally comes from a place of love and may on the surface seem like a good thing. But when we rush to problem-solve for our kids and don’t let them safely explore, we may unknowingly be telling them we don’t trust them or believe in their abilities.

Praise Their Efforts, Not the Outcome

Similarly, Tomlinson shared that certain compliments may come from a good place but may impact kids differently. Tomlinson gave the example of using phrases like “Good girl” or “Good boy,” such as saying, “Great job, you won that race!” While at first glance this seems harmless—even positive—it may actually send the message that to receive love they need to be perfect.

Instead, we can respond by highlighting their efforts. Tomlinson continued with the race example and said that a better response may be, “I’m so proud of how hard you’ve been training for that race!” This way we place the value on a child’s efforts instead of the result of winning.

“Place the value on a child’s efforts instead of the result of winning.”

Talk to Them About How They Feel

Another great response when discussing their achievements is asking them how they feel. Something like, “You won the race! How do you feel?” This provides the opportunity for the child to find their own value in their achievement instead of relying on the perception of someone else. Here, instead of looking for the approval of someone else, they get to set the stage to look inward toward a sense of self-pride on an accomplishment.

Remind Them Your Love is Unconditional

Tomlinson shared that we’ll also want to have positive discussions with our kids about what it means to achieve. We can explain to them that it’s OK to fail sometimes and not be perfect. It’s also important for parents to remind their kids that we accept them as they are and our love isn’t conditional.

How Parents Can Model Healthy Self-Esteem

Like many things, children can learn self-worth from watching their parents. This gives us a big responsibility to watch the way we view ourselves and others, knowing that our children may be internalizing what they see and hear.

According to Tomlinson, one of the biggest aspects of this is catching our own negative self-talk. We can think about all of those times we heard, “You look so much like your mom,” growing up, only to hear her critique herself later that day. Unknowingly, she may have passed on some of that negative self-image by a simple unchecked comment.

Tomlinson explained that we should also be mindful of the language we use when we talk about other people we encounter. For example, it’s important to remember that even comments that may seem harmless, such as “He’s gained a lot of weight,” when talking about the next-door neighbor can be internalized by our little ones without us even realizing it. With a little conscious effort, we can be proud of the way we model and build self-worth in our little ones.