Low self-esteem among teens can lead to a host of problems as they mature. Research suggests that adolescents with low self-esteem are at increased risk of growing up and exhibiting poor health and criminal behavior, and they live with decreased economic prospects. Low self esteem can start at an early age and grow over time. Alternatively, in many cases, it can be addressed early and the symptoms lessened or resolved entirely.
For children, self esteem is a mix of feeling “I am capable” and “I am loved.” Children feel capable when they are confident that they can succeed or prevail at tasks that challenge their capacities. Children feel loved when they have built strong attachments with others in their lives who support and nurture them and foster their success.
Here’s the catch, children who feel loved are more likely to be able to fail, or to delay success longer, without damaging their sense of being a capable person. The capacity to try, try again – to stick to it and ask questions – increases the likelihood of success in the long run. And, experiencing success after struggling with something increases the sense of feeling capable.
Many things can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem. Self-esteem can be tied up with a sense of attractiveness and thus undermined by childhood obesity or acne. Self-esteem can be influenced by what a child hears and sees related to her or his sense of self. This can include everything from the nicknames we use to the subtle, often inadvertent, references to a child’s capacity and looks. Low self-esteem can occur also when expectations are set that exceed a child’s true capabilities.
Anxiety – the feeling of uneasiness, fear, or dread about what is about to happen – is often intertwined with low self-esteem.
On one hand, children who lack confidence in their own capacities may dread failure. On the other hand, children who are plagued by anxiety may feel less confident and capable. Thus anxiety may produce low self-esteem, and low self-esteem may produce anxiety, and the two together may feed off of one another. Whew. Not good.
So, what can we, as parents, do to help our children have a healthy sense of self-esteem?
Ensure that your children feel loved: Express your love to them in words (“I love you!”) and through touch, including kisses for little ones and hugs all around. Express your love in your body language and deeds, including smiling when you see them and giving your children your undivided attention at regular intervals throughout the day. Ensure that your kids know that they are loved, regardless of their actions.
Celebrate and de-emphasize failure: Show that you fail at things and tell your kids what you learned. You might say “I burned the cupcakes! I now know I need to check the timer twice to be sure I set it right.” or “We lost the game, but I’m getting better at my layups because of the practice.” Don’t dwell on any one failure, such as a bad test score or strike out. Instead, ask what they learned from the experience and help them to prepare for the next time.
Check your language: Make sure that your language is supportive and affirming and that of siblings and caregivers is as well. Try more “You can do it!” “I have faith in you.” “Great idea!” and “What did you learn?” and less “You are hopeless.” “I’m disappointed.” “That’s stupid.” and “Why can’t you do it right?” Make sure that nicknames are based on positive attributes – “Pudge” and “Whiffer” are simply not acceptable.
Provide capacity-appropriate challenges – and then get out of the way: Choose games or building sets such as Legos that are challenging for you kids, but within their capacity. When they ask for help, ask first what they’ve tried already and try brainstorming other possible solutions. Let them struggle a bit and express confidence that they can figure it out. Offer hints to get them to the next step rather than spelling out a solution. Even a very young child doing a shape puzzle benefits from suggesting an alternative block to try (“maybe the blue one will work?”) rather than from having you try a different block for her.
Ultimately, we can take these suggestions as a recipe with the whole being more than the sum of the parts. When a child fails at something, such as the aforementioned test, don’t punish or ridicule. Instead, first express your love. Then, identify what was learned and what she or he can do to get better for next time. If you discover that a challenge is truly beyond your child’s capacity, then re-assess and move on rather than having your child experience repeated failure. This might mean finding an alternate game or toy to use, or even changing classes or changing teams.
Addressing issues of low-self esteem while children are young, improves the chances of them maturing into confident and capable adolescents and adults. They can do it, and you can help.
What has been your experience addressing your child’s self-esteem? What strategies can you share?