Good self-esteem is the ultimate buffer in kids’ lives. It bolsters them during failure. It navigates them through social pressures. It weathers their emotional (and hormonal) storms. It keeps their negative self-statements in check. Good self-esteem encourages kids to try new things. It helps them understand other people, and treat them well. It makes life more enjoyable. Self-esteem is not something kids build on their own. In fact, building self-esteem can have more to do with others than it does with the self.
Parents, your role in your child’s self-esteem is critical. From your child’s birth onward, you get more and more jobs in helping her develop positive self-esteem.
Birth to 1 Year: Good self-esteem starts when babies learn to fulfill their basic needs (love, hunger, comfort) by manipulating parents and caregivers. (“When I cry, Dad hugs me.”) There are 3 jobs for parents.
- Love, adore, and cuddle your baby.
- Give her everything she demands. There is no such thing as spoiling a child who is 0-6 months old. It takes a newborn a few months to realize he’s actually a separate person from his primary caregiver. (Can you imagine that a-ha moment?) After age 6 months, parents usually notice their child’s manipulation strategies are developing remarkably. You feel like a sucker. Still, meet her needs. But also start to teach effective communication skills. Children between 6-12 months are usually still in the pre-verbal stage; they cannot say what they want. For example, suppose a toy is not working and your son screams and shoves it in your face to fix it. First, validate his frustration (i.e., “Oh, it’s not working? That’s a bummer!”) Second, have him practice handing it to you nicely (i.e., “When you hand it to me without screaming, I’ll help you buddy.”) Third, think out loud as you fix the toy (i.e., “See this thing here. It’s not turning right. If I do this, it will work, see? Here, you try it.”)
- Be a model for calm effort in working through problems…and checking the stupid batteries…
1 Year to 3 Years: Good self-esteem means feeling brave and secure enough to explore and try new things. There are 4 more jobs for parents:
- Avoid “helicopter parenting” by smothering children. Nothing is so sweet as a safe moment to oneself. Encourage her unaccompanied excursions into the next room. Introduce him to the arts (i.e., banging on kitchen pans for drums). Praise her efforts, and the products of them (i.e., hang up her drawings on the fridge). Kids develop bravery by understanding that caregivers will keep them safe, and will be there if anything gets scary.
- Don’t neglect your child. Make sure he is in supervised, child-proofed environments that will not punish exploration with injury. When accidents happen (…do coffee-table manufacturers have toddlers?), validate the injury (“Ouch!”) and explain how it can be avoided in the future.
- Tell your child multiple times a day what INTRINSIC qualities you admire in her: sustained effort, working through frustration, showing care for others, athletic ability, smart reasoning, bravery, sense of humor, etc. When your child misbehaves, make a point to discourage the behavior, not the child. (“In our house, we don’t hit. You are not the kind of person who hits. Please take a time out.”) Do not under any circumstances apply negative labels to your child. Labels like “lazy,” “dramatic,” “babyish,” “worry wart,” and other unpleasant character appraisals shame your child, and have no positive impacts. Remember: Attribute good behaviors to your child’s character and bad behaviors to your child’s choices. (Behavior charts are a good way to get kids to behave without harming their self-esteem).
- Model good self-esteem. Normalize mistakes. Don’t talk down about yourself. Don’t talk down about your spouse. Toddlers are using your skills to build their own. To children, parents are the most attractive, important, effective, and powerful people in the world. (Feeling better about yourself now?)
3-6 Years: Good self-esteem is being able to do stuff for oneself. There are 3 more jobs for parents:
- Encourage and expect your child to take more and more responsibility for his Activities of Daily Living (ADL). These include: showering/bathing, brushing hair/teeth, getting dressed, using the toilet independently, feeding oneself appropriately, using the telephone/computer, taking care of pets, cleaning up after oneself, using safe behaviors (buckling self into the car seat), organizing school materials, and so on.
- Expect more from your child. It’s OK if kids don’t get ADLs perfect. In fact, they won’t. But it is important that parents have reasonable expectations for children to try their best at each job. High demandingness is one very important part of good parenting. Mandate good effort in a matter-of-fact way. We all have to do things we don’t want to; that’s part of life.
- Praise your child. Give warm support and even over-the-top, exaggerated cheers for jobs well done. Be sure to emphasize how proud you are of your child’s efforts, even if the outcome is not great. It’s not your imagination: your child IS incredibly unique, gifted, wonderful, and a genius at being himself. Let him know that.
6-11 Years: Good self-esteem means comparing oneself realistically to others and, in doing so, seeing self-worth. There are 3 more jobs for parents:
- The focus for kids this age turns increasingly away from parents to other people (particularly peers). Kids compare themselves to others and see that there are often major differences. For most kids, differences will be both positive and negative. Your child realizes that he is not the best student in math. She sees that she is a great basketball player. He understands that others are more popular. She gets that other kids have family troubles. He sees that other people have more expensive clothes and gadgets. Parents should verbalize values for intrinsic skills and character, and not necessarily for achievements. Be realistic and positive in appraisals of your child. (“Yes, I suppose he is a better pitcher than you. He has spent a lot of time practicing and he’s sure talented. If you work hard, you may be as good as him. If not, no biggie. You’re great at understanding technology.”) Introduce your child to (books about) heroes of character and effort, not heroes whose only attributes are beauty, fame, or fortune (as they see on TV and other media).
- Love the child you have, not the child you wanted to have. It’s time to come to terms with possible disappointments, and with, perhaps, your own childhood “failures.” Focus on the things you admire in your child, not on the ways you see her as falling short of your ideals. Strike the balance between pushing your child to do better and recognizing that she may be doing her very best. Indulge his passions, if they’re safe and appropriate.
- Keep close ties with your child’s school. Teachers have valuable information about how your child relates to others. Good schools help teachers structure the classroom in ways that help all children feel accepted. Good teachers ensure that children do not feel inferior.
12-20 Years: Good self-esteem is knowing who you are, and who you are not. There are 3 more jobs for parents:
- Teenagers have critical questions to answer about themselves, like “Who am I?,” “How do I fit in?,” and “What am I going to do in life?” Questions of identity relate to everything from hair color to religious views. Parents should permit this exploration, and support it. When you push too hard for your child to conform to your views, trouble happens. He may become confused about what’s important to him. Of course, there are family and societal values to be enforced: safe and ethical behaviors. Allowing your child to experiment with substances is not the thing to do. Permitting your child to dress provocatively is not the thing to do. But you may consider letting your child dye his hair. She should be able to select (safe) friends. He may wonder aloud (appropriately) about his sexual, religious, or political orientations.
- Forming an identity can take a while. Be patient. This stage spans several years of awkward fashions, silly fads, and important work on the self. Continue to love and support your child through this sometimes difficult stage. Support especially the times when she sticks to her values, while peers do not. For example, praise your son when he elects not to drink alcohol at a teen party.
- Avoid being defensive. For kids this age, everything is grist for the mill. Your child may call your rules too strict. She may accuse you of invading her privacy on Facebook or Twitter. He will say things at home aren’t fair. She may say your religious or political views are wrong. While taking into consideration your child’s view (she may have a good point!), remember that her accusations have more to do with her questions about herself. Matter-of-factly state your views, don’t attack his, and show your child how to communicate differences with respect.
An important, final note: mental illness is the arch enemy of good self-esteem. It ruthlessly attacks self-esteem. This can and does happen even for kids who have great parents. Mental illness can interfere with the development of good self-esteem from toddlerhood and up. When a child has poor self-esteem, particularly within the context of a supportive home environment, it’s a red flag for mental illness. The usual culprits are depression, anxiety, and attention problems. Signs of low self-esteem include:
- Recurrent, unjustified shame and guilt
- Hopelessness about the future
- Feeling unlucky, punished, or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”
- Suicidal ideas or behavior
- Self-harm ideas or behavior
Children with good self-esteem have experiences–often provided to them by parents–that prepare them well for their future. They expect to succeed in what matters most to them.