Parents usually view their children’s self-esteem as the key to their happiness and future success. They believe that with healthy self-esteem, children will be better prepared to face the challenges that will come their way in school and life. This belief is backed up by numerous research studies which have found that self-esteem matters and can have a positive effect on our lives. So, it’s important for parents to understand how self-esteem develops and how they can foster it in their children.
What is Self-Esteem?
Sometimes self-esteem can be mistaken for being so self-confident that it borders on narcissism. However, self-esteem and narcissism are quite different. While narcissism involves feelings of superiority, entitlement, and self-centeredness, self-esteem is how people see themselves and involves feelings of self-acceptance and self-respect. As such, it is shaped by how much children feel loved and supported by the important people in their lives, such as parents and caregivers.
Traditional views of self-esteem are often based on the belief that it is generated by everyday activities such as success in after school activities, a favorite sports team’s victory, how many friends you have and what they think of you, or how good your grades are, etc. While these experiences are important and add enjoyment to life, they are inherently loss-filled. These outcomes aren’t permanent or consistent since, for example, eventually your favorite team will lose, someone will get better grades than you, or you may no longer enjoy a sport you’ve played for years.
The good feelings generated by success from external things are unstable, so it’s impossible to control things outside yourself. Because of this, you will always need another experience of winning to feel good about yourself and it is impossible to win every time. Ups and downs in life are inevitable and a self-esteem linked to them is fleeting.
A more constructive view of an internal self-esteem that is genuine and lasting comes from a deep conviction of being loved, lovable, and loving. This inner self-esteem is unshakable, so that when something bad happens, your child’s sense of self-worth remains stable. For example, a child with stable inner self-esteem will view a low grade on a test at school this way — “I’m upset I did poorly on my test. I guess I need to try harder next time.” This is because the child doesn’t view a loss as a reflection of who he is but rather that he needs to study differently next time. However, a child who has attached his good feelings about himself to external successes will view himself in any number of negative ways, such as — “I am so stupid for not doing well on my test,” or “I hate that class!”
Fostering your child’s self-esteem
A healthy and stable self-esteem is a child’s positive feelings about herself and is the center of her confidence. It will allow her to succeed in school and in all endeavors in life by helping her make good choices at home and school and avoid situations that cause her trouble.
Parents are, of course, the most significant influence in their children’s lives. As such, a parents’ relationship with their children is the key to their self-esteem. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “Genuine self-esteem starts with the feelings of being lovable, loving, and loved that children get from parents and other important adults. Children who receive that gift become adults with a well-being that is unaffected by success or failure.”
So, how does a child acquire this type of inner self-esteem? All babies are born with it and then rely on their parents and caregivers to nurture and strengthen it. From birth, a child’s very survival is dependent on our responding to her desires and needs. The most meaningful experience in a child’s life is to believe that she has caused her parents to love caring for her.
Early on every baby and young child copies her parents and wants to be just like them. Not just how you walk and talk, but how you treat her and how you feel about her when you are with her. We are all born to love whatever care we get and to want more of it. The way you treat your child is how she will treat herself and others and greatly impacts her self-esteem.
The following are some tips to keep in mind:
Nurture a loving, positive relationship with your child by showing your unconditional love each day. Doing so gives children a sense of security and belonging. Over time, your loving relationship will help your child as he makes friends and forms bonds with others in his life.
Set aside focused individual time with your child each day to engage in fun and enjoyable activities. Simply playing with your child has many benefits, such as strengthening your relationship and increasing confidence.
Avoid power struggles and conflicts by listening and acknowledging your child’s feelings and managing his immature, yet age-appropriate behavior, without timeouts, withdrawal of privileges, or using consequences.
Use Smart Love’s concept of loving regulation, which focuses on regulating children’s behavior (for example, they need to go to bed or they can’t hit their brother), while maintaining your loving parent-child relationship. Children copy how you feel about them and treat them. When you treat your child positively even when he is struggling, he will learn that he is loveable even when not behaving perfectly.
Offer your child agency whenever possible by offering him appropriate choices. This can help strengthen his self-esteem by providing a sense of ownership for his experiences.
Make setbacks an opportunity for growth. When your child makes a mistake, emphasize that mistakes are part of being human and that you don’t expect him to be perfect because no one is. By stressing that perfection isn’t the goal, you can help build his confidence and resiliency.
Welcome and accept all of your child’s feelings by showing him that you love him even when he is angry, unhappy, or struggling. Doing so will help your child develop strong internal self-worth. When parents get angry at children for behaving like children, children copy this anger towards themselves, making them feel that they are bad or their feelings are bad. This creates conditional self-worth, which involves feeling good about yourself only when you feel happy or behaving well. At Smart Love, we help parents understand that there are no bad feelings and being unhappy is not a weakness.
As you can see, self-esteem doesn’t have to be controlled by outside influences and it’s possible to foster your child’s inner self-esteem. When parents are understanding, loving, and kind, children internalize these positive experiences and carry them with them throughout their lives. Think of it as a “self-esteem piggy bank” that they can draw on to feel good about themselves when life gets tough. Regardless of a child’s age or struggles, parents can always build on their innate potential for positive self-esteem.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2010.
Research Review Shows Self-Esteem Has Long-Term Benefits, Melissa Blouin, University of California Davis, April 15, 2022. https://www.ucdavis.edu/curiosity/news/research-review-shows-self-esteem-has-long-term-benefits