A child begins to develop and build self-esteem as early as 3 years old. Self-esteem and self-acceptance come from many different influences and areas, but work together to help a child establish a self-concept. The more opportunities given to a child to be comfortable with him or herself, the more positively he or she will feel about tackling tasks, taking on new challenges, and even experiencing failure.
In the earliest stages, children learn to feel accepted and loved by parents who respond to them in appropriate, loving, and respectful ways. Children also develop and learn about self-esteem from interactions with peers. This of course means that children experience different levels of self-esteem based on environmental factors. A child may feel self-confident and valued at home, but not at school or with neighborhood friends.
As a child gets older, his or her of self-worth is more likely to deepen when adults respond to the child’s interests and efforts with appreciation and encouragement. For example, if your child shows interest in something you are doing like cooking or laundry, you might include the child in the activity. Or if the child shows interest in an animal in the garden, you might help the child find more information about it. In this way, you respond positively to your child’s interest by treating it seriously. Praising a child does not build self-esteem, but rather trains the child to be externally motivated (See additional article Praise Vs. Encouragement).
Additionally, the more age-appropriate responsibility a child can be given, the more chances he or she has to experience accomplishment and success. Giving chores such as pet care, setting the dinner table, emptying the dishwasher, etc. are opportunities for a child to feel pride in their attempts and successes. Further, learning from failures is equally as important to healthy self-esteem.
Self-esteem is most likely to be fostered when children are esteemed by the adults who are important to them. To esteem children means to treat them respectfully, ask their views and opinions, take their views and opinions seriously, and give them meaningful and realistic feedback. Parents who demonstrate to their children through words or actions that their children are not meeting expectations (behavior, coordination, intelligence, success, etc.) generally have children who struggle with low self-esteem and self-concept.
Here is a list of simple things you can do to help foster a healthy sense of self-esteem in your children:
1. Watch what you say. Children are very perceptive and listen to the words that you speak. They should not hear you discussing them in a negative manner to your friends, to their teachers or their other parent.
2. Be realistic about them. Children do not believe parents who tell them what they “want to hear”. If you tell them they will make the soccer team because they are great, and they do not, they learn that your word is not credible. Focus on their efforts and attempts, rather than outcome.
3. Be a good role model. If you are critical and harsh on yourself, your children will absorb those self-defeating behaviors as well. Learn to grow your own self-esteem and be a good role model.
4. Redirect incorrect beliefs. Your child will tend to over-generalize about themselves in a negative manner. (For example, I don’t understand math so I am a bad student). Help them to see that they are successful in other areas of school and just need to work harder in one area.
5. Give helpful, encouraging feedback. Focusing on the good in your child will help build self-esteem. It will also allow your child to regulate his or her own behaviors if you begin to encourage actions based on self-awareness ( i.e. You were angry, but did not yell at your brother).
6. Create a safe and nurturing environment at home. A child that experiences criticism, yelling, arguing and fighting at home is more likely to have low self-esteem. Making an attempt to offer security and encouragement consistently at home will help a child feel accepted, thus fostering better self-worth.
7. Provide helpful and constructive experiences. Giving children opportunities to be involved in activities that do not revolve around competition can be very helpful and rewarding. Mentoring, volunteering, starting clubs and other neutral activities can give a sense of purpose and community that is great for self-esteem.
Starting to encourage and foster healthy self-esteem growth early in children is the key to them building appropriate coping skills, learning to deal with failures, and to love and appreciate who they are and who they can be.