How can I build my child’s self-esteem?

You don’t try to build a wall, you don’t set out to build a wall, you don’t say I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built. You say, I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid, and you do that every single day and soon you will have a wall.

Will Smith

A good place to start is to understand what self-esteem actually is.

Self-esteem is how a person feels and thinks about themself. It is important for us, as parents, to ensure we are consciously building our child’s self-esteem from a very young age. We can start when they are babies. The way we SPEAK and REACT to our children will have a major impact on their self-esteem. 

Generally, children with HIGH self-esteem will come across more confident. They will believe in themselves and their capabilities. They are more likely to be persistent in what they are trying to achieve, whether it be joining lego pieces or building blocks or assembling a toy. They will feel proud of their accomplishments and will generally have positive thoughts about themselves. A lot of this will be shown through the way they behave and react to tasks and situations. 

On the flip side, children with LOW self-esteem will lack confidence, shy away from trying new things because they don’t believe they are able to do something well enough. They are more likely to focus and dwell on the things that they got wrong or did badly and will be self-critical. They may also see themselves inferior to their peers and resultantly, interact less with them.

To have high self-esteem is REALLY IMPORTANT because it will help our child feel more confident to try new things, expand their mindset and help them overcome challenges, adversity, criticism and negative situations they experience throughout life, with more ease. They will be more open to learning and naturally develop a positive attitude with a growth mindset. Children with high self-esteem are more likely to be successful throughout school and generally throughout life. 

Now that you know just how crucial high self-esteem is for children, what can you do to help?

From as young as babyhood, there are a number of things we can do to help our child feel proud of themselves and kick start their journey of building their self-esteem. 

Imagine a large, well-built house – you couldn’t build this overnight. IT TAKES TIME AND CONSCIOUS EFFORT! – and it’s the same for building our child’s self-esteem. We build it brick by brick throughout their childhood so they become confident, capable and successful adults.

The KEY things we can do to build our child’s self-esteem are:

  • Help them to learn new things – from birth, everything is new for our child. This means them learning even the simplest tasks such as holding a spoon, feeding themselves, taking their first steps, turning the pages of a book or opening a door, can be a massive boost for them and consequently, a step closer to independence. 

As our child grows, the type of tasks that they master would become increasingly complex, i.e. learning to tie shoelaces, riding a bike, doing the laundry, learning to cook, driving a car, etc. 

It’s important we encourage their growth in all areas of life and resist the urge to do everything for them. Even when we feel like certain tasks may create too much mess, i.e. drinking water from an open cup, we must encourage them to push themselves and not create limitations because we don’t want the hassle of cleaning up.

  • Show and encourage (also see my post on ‘Encouragement vs. Praise’) – when teaching our child a new task, it’s best to show them what to do first (you may have to do this a few times) and then give them the OPPORTUNITY to do it themselves. 

Giving our child the chance to practice a new skill is extremely vital. Even if they make mistakes, they will learn and once they master it, they will feel extremely proud of themselves. We must create environments and set-ups that allow children to use their initiative, explore and ultimately, thrive.

  • Refrain from over-praising – if, for example your child didn’t perform particularly well in a math test or a game of football and they clearly look disappointed, don’t tell them they did well just to make them feel better. They know they didn’t do well so your ‘praise’ will come across as fake and will not add any value to them; it will have the opposite effect than the one you intended. They are less likely to value your praise even when they genuinely do well. 

Instead, tell them that you are proud of their persistence to complete the game or that sometimes we all experience set-backs so next time we try harder to do better. It’s important to praise the effort rather than praising their character. For example, if your child does well on an exam, it’s better to say “You worked really hard for those exams; well done!” rather than “You are so clever”. (See my post on ‘Encouragement vs. Praise’ for further information).

  • Lead by example – this is by far, the most effective way of teaching children anything! Children learn the fastest by watching those around them, especially in their first 7 years, so it’s important we role model the ACTION and ATTITUDE we want our children to possess. If our child sees us performing all tasks with effort and pride (without moaning or complaining) they will learn to do the same, whether that includes daily house chores, cleaning the car, ironing the clothes, etc. They will develop the same outlook on things as you so it’s vital to be conscious of your reactions, responses and actions.
  • Never, ever criticise – criticism in any form (even as a joke) is an ABSOLUTE NO-GO! This is the MOST IMPORTANT thing all parents must be conscious of! The words we use to address our child programmes their mind and has a HUGE impact on their self-esteem. 

Negative words they hear about themselves (i.e. “you’re so slow”; “you’re a naughty boy”; “you are lazy”) including comments on their appearance (i.e. ‘what on earth are you wearing?’, ‘look at your hair, it’s so messy’) will diminish their self-esteem. 

Instead, guide them to what you want them to do next time and if needed, show them how to do it (i.e. ‘let me show you how to brush your hair’ or ‘this is how we tie our shoelaces’). Also ensure that anyone who regularly interacts with your child (i.e. family members and carers/nannies), also follow suit. 

Children are innocent beings and will believe everything a ‘responsible’ adult tells them. When you talk to them or about them to other people, always talk positively, i.e. if they scored 2 out of 10 on a test, focus on the 2 they got right. 

Any form of criticism will completely knock a child’s confidence.

  • Involve them – let them help you fold the clothes, wash the car, fetch nappies for their sibling, hold the shopping list while you’re in the supermarket. The message they get from you allowing these things is that YOU VALUE THEM and consequently, will increase their self-esteem. The same works for adults. If, as an adult you are made to feel important or valued, you will naturally feel good about yourself. It’s a basic human need and your child needs this.
  • Set rules/boundaries – children need structure in their life.
  • Empower your child to make their own decisions, even if it’s something simple like which pair of shoes they want to wear today or which activity they would like to do. 

All the little steps you take now will reward you and your child in the long-run.

Win-win for all!

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