Self-esteem is a collection of beliefs or feelings we have about ourselves. It fluctuates over time and can be affected by internal thoughts as well as input from others.
Having a healthy self-esteem is like having armor against the world. It can protect you through difficult times and help you remain focused on what is important to you. Healthy self-esteem gives you the confidence to make the right choices for you.
Research shows that children with high self-esteem grow up to be more confident adults. Self-esteem building starts young.
Children with high self-esteem tend to have an easier time handling conflicts and challenges, smile more often, and are generally fairly optimistic.
These children enjoying playing both independently and with other kids, and have high frustration tolerance.
Children with low self-esteem find challenges to be major sources of stress and/or anxiety, struggle with problem solving, and may become passive and/or depressed.
These children tend to avoid trying new things and have very low frustration tolerance.
Self-esteem is all around us. We need to keep that in mind when raising our kids today. Just last weekend, Riley and I experienced the following scenario at her soccer game:
Riley approached me with a huge smile on her face as she came over for the mandatory water break. Just as she started to say something to me, another four year old girl interrupted us:
Girl: “I’m faster than her, you know”
Me: “I think you’re both really fast runners!”
Girl: “No. I’m faster than her AND I can beat her”.
Me: “We’re not racing today, we’re just having fun playing soccer with friends. Riley, I am so proud of you, you are having so much fun out there.”
Girl: “Let’s race and I can beat her”.
This is where Sean sat down and diverted the girl’s attention elsewhere for a moment. Riley and I made our escape.
That little girl clearly struggles with her own self-esteem. She wants so badly to “win” so that she can be “better”. In the process or working this out, she almost damaged my daughter’s sense of self (I jumped in quickly when I saw the look on Riley’s face). Four year olds aren’t known for their ability to assert themselves, so even a child with a healthy self-esteem might struggle in a similar situation. We survived that attack relatively unscathed, but it really for me thinking about ways to promote healthy self-esteem in young children. Below are 10 tips to help you promote your child’s self-esteem:
1. Praise actions: You can’t go wrong when you praise your kids, but you might go wrong if you forget to do so. Young children need feedback. It’s how they measure their actions and it plays a role in learning from experience. Provide specific praise about actual actions performed and efforts made in the process. If praise is only attached to success, kids become focused on “winning”. Riley loves to practice writing. When I see her concentrating on her writing and copying letters I say, “Riley, I love how hard you are working on your handwriting. Those R’s are really looking beautiful.” I could just say “good job”…but what does that mean? Be specific.
2. Identify strengths: Preschoolers are always watching each other. On the bright side (or not, depending on the circumstances), they learn new things from each other. On the not so bright side, they can become self-critical when they see a peer accomplishing something they still struggle to do. Be sure to point out your child’s strengths regularly and, again, be specific. Refocus your child on his strengths when he starts to draw comparisons.
3. Foster a sense of belonging: Young children don’t necessarily understand how peer pressure works, but they know when they’re being excluded. Show your children that they are important by listening to and responding to their needs and ideas. As much as possible, save grown up conversations for later so that you can have family conversations. Try to address their concerns as they arise, no matter how minor. As previously mentioned, preschoolers crave input at times. When they are repeatedly brushed off or made to feel like their concerns aren’t real, it can affect their self-esteem.
4. Celebrate small steps: The girl in the above mentioned scenario already seems to subscribe to the theory that winning is everything. But as we all learned from The Little Engine That Could, it’s the getting there that can really make you feel good. Choose doable challenges for your kids and celebrate the small successes along the way. If we only celebrate the end goal, they will evaluate their self worth based on whether or not they cross the finish line. It’s not about scoring a goal in the soccer game; it’s about getting on the field and chasing the ball while having fun. The goals will come later.
5. Encourage talents: Every child is different. Their personalities start to emerge within weeks, and they develop their own interests along the way. Let your child focus on their strengths and talents. Try not to force certain sports or activities just because they’re readily available or other kids are involved. Riley likes soccer and tennis, but so far Liam really only likes cars. Time will tell what he wants to do, but for right now he’s happy with his Gymboree class and his cars. And that’s just fine.
6. Correct incorrect beliefs: Preschoolers love to generalize. One misspelling and they will declare themselves the worst spellers on Earth! Redirect inaccurate statements immediately and remind them of their strengths. It doesn’t have to be a detailed discussion, just a statement of truth. Just the other day Riley burst into tears and said, “Liam said he’s better at counting and I know that he’s right!” When she calmed down I replied, “just yesterday I heard you count to thirty. That’s a big number. You’re an excellent counter.”
7. Be affectionate: There will come a time when they want us to park down the street and wear a hat. But for right now, they need our affection. Be generous with hugs, kisses, and I love yous. They thrive on affection. It helps them feel loved and secure.
8. Avoid competition: Few things make me more upset than very young children who think that winning is the only way to measure success. It’s not about winning. It’s about learning, growing, and having fun. Try to avoid declaring winners (because then there has to be a loser). When having races or playing games make sure that everyone finishes and is praised for finishing. Make it about the effort.
9. Join with your child: The best way to show interest in your child is to join with him. Join in when your child engages in his favorite activity. Ask questions. Take an interest. Taking an interest in your child shows him that you value his thoughts.
10. Foster Independence: As much as they need us, they also need to work on taking small step towards independence. When they know they can do things, they feel more confident. Teach problem solving skills. Step back and let them work on challenges before jumping in to help. Help by asking, “how can we do this in a different way? Let’s come up with some ideas together.” Getting kids involved in problem solving teaches them how to approach challenging situations in the future.
Building and maintaining healthy self-esteem can be a lifelong process, but the sooner you start, the more confident your child will become.
On a side note: I recently read about an 18 year old girl, Sarah Cronk, who founded The Sparkle Effect. The Sparkle Effect is a student-run program that helps high school students across the country create cheerleading squads that include students with disabilities. Sarah’s mission is to help improve the self-esteem of students with disabilities. The tagline reads: When everyone cheers, everyone wins. She is an amazing young woman. There is a new TV series on local ABC affiliates, “Everyday Health”, that profiles people who are helping others lead happier lives. Everyday Health will feature Sarah Cronk on Saturday, September 24. Check your local listings to tune in and learn more about this incredible young woman.
How do build your child’s self-esteem?