As a child psychologist (and parent), I have come to believe the saying that “less is more.” I have worked with countless youth, ages of 3 to 18, “diagnosed” with a broad range of psych-educational difficulties, from ADHD and social anxiety to autism and grief and loss. Over and over again, I have found that the “cure” to so many of these challenges is healthy self-esteem. It is also the essential element of healthy development that gets most damaged by the negative side effects of diagnostic labels and the sense of being “different”from others.

Self-esteem is the fuel that helps a kid with ADHD to become a Lego-master, despite his trouble staying in his seat during class. It is the catalyst that propels a socially anxious teen to ask a girl out. More than any fancy psychological test or pioneering treatment approach, I find that more and more of my job is to boost a child’s or teen’s self-esteem. When they feel good about who they are and what they can accomplish, all of the obstacles and challenges they face are surmountable. As simple and basic as it seems, improving your child’s self-esteem can be a very challenging task when faced with a tantrum-prone toddler or a moody teenager. That’s why I decided to devote this blog post to “Tips for Improving Self-Esteem.”

What is Self Esteem?

According to Nathaniel Brown, author of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, self-esteem is “…the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.” Self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth). It is a combination of each person’s belief that s/he has the ability to face life’s challenges and that each person has the right to achieve happiness and to enjoy life based on his/her own values and needs. In other words, self-esteem is a combination of the self-determined belief that “I can do it,” and the self-affirming belief “I like who I am.”

Ways to Nurture Self-Esteem

  1. Be Interested in What Interests Them: Parents are always amazed that I can carry on a conversation with their children about everything from Minecraft and The Hunger Games to Justin Beeber and Ninjago. Well, it’s my job—as a child therapist and as a parent. There is little more powerful to a child’s confidence than knowing that a parent is always involved and invested in whatever matters most to him or her, whether that means cheering him from the sidelines of his soccer game, signing her up for death-defying skateboarding lessons, or learning everything you ever wanted to know about reptiles and buying one together … even if snakes disgust you. Being involved in what your children are interested in improves your bond immensely. It also helps them to experience that necessary ingredient of self-esteem—“I like who I am”—because someone whose opinion they care about (even if they claim they don’t) likes who they are and what they are into.
  2. Be Mindful of What You Say: Children are very sensitive to their parents’ words. Remember to praise you child not only for a job well done, but, more importantly, for the effort. When you child comes home with three B’s, an A, and a C, don’t be the parent whose first question is “Why did you get a C?” Our society puts way too much pressure on success, and I see that pressure channeled through well-meaning parents all the time. Focusing on a child’s perceived weaknesses does not tend to actually motivate them to improve. Instead, it tends to knock their self-esteem down a notch and, with it, their motivation to try harder.
  1. Encourage Your Children to Face Challenges: Along with focusing on accomplishments, do not collude with your child to avoid those things that cause some anxiety or fears of failure. I have often seen many parents avoid situations that may cause their children to feel anxious or uncomfortable, such as attending a classmate’s birthday party or trying out for a sport. Part of our job as parents is to be cheerleaders for that other ingredient in self-esteem: the child’s self-determined sense that “I can do it.” This is especially important for children who may have certain challenges (e.g., anxiety, learning difficulties, etc.). A child may inwardly feel “I can’t do it,” and find many reasons to avoid something challenging or anxiety-provoking. As long as we, as parents, do not focus on the outcome, but rather the effort, the encouragement to “keep trying” will motivate our children to push through their doubts. Almost always, our worst fears of how bad something will be do not come true. Instead, a child often learns “That wasn’t so bad,” or “I was able to do better than I expected.” With that positive experience of overcoming a fear come an increase in self-esteem and a willingness to keep facing fears rather than avoiding them.
  2. Validate Feelings While Re-directing Inaccurate Beliefs: This can be a challenging aspect of improving your child’s self-esteem. No one likes to be told she should not feel the way she feels, especially children. So allow your children the space to express their feelings, whether it is disappointment, anger, or sadness. Ask questions to better understand why they are feeling the way they are. Validation improves self-esteem, because when children feel that someone understands and accepts how they feel, it provides them with some relief and allows them to accept themselves more.But sometimes children will also develop inaccurate beliefs about themselves as they navigate their social world. So as parents, it is also important to help them see different perspectives about a situation or their own capabilities. If you spend more time trying to understand how your children feel, you will be better able to navigate the inaccurate beliefs they may have developed as a result of those feelings. Too often, we, as parents, want to make our children feel better, so we jump in to correct their perspective or offer immediate solutions. This prevents us from being better “feelings detectives.” I have witnessed how some of the most well-intentioned words of encouragement by a parent totally missed the mark in accurately validating a child’s internal emotions. Validate and understand your child’s feelings before you jump in to fix the problem or correct a viewpoint.
  3. Be a Positive Role Model and Demonstrate Self-Esteem: Kids often reflect the emotional health and stability of their parent(s). If you’re excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or fear-based, your child will eventually mirror your feelings. Viewing yourself and the world around you from a “glass half full” perspective versus a “glass half empty” view will go a long way towards instilling healthy self-esteem in your child. The more you show that you can accept your weaknesses and celebrate your strengths, the more you will encourage self-esteem in your kids to do the same. Self-esteem and confidence are learned characteristics and traits, and children need opportunities to develop them. With encouragement, time, and attention, they can learn to embrace their capabilities and challenges their weaknesses.

Your child will naturally become more self-confident and resilient, if you can model the two necessary ingredients to self-esteem in your role as a parent: “I can do this!” and “I like who I am.” aMay your confidence in your parenting grow as you encourage confidence in your children!