Posted on

How Can We Strengthen Children's Self-Esteem?

Most parents want their young children to have a healthy sense of self-esteem. That desire can also be seen in education--schools around the country include self-esteem among their goals. Many observers believe that low self-esteem lies at the bottom of many of society's problems.

Even though self-esteem has been studied for more than 100 years, specialists and educators continue to debate its precise nature and development. Nevertheless, they generally agree that parents and other adults who are important to children play a major role in laying a solid foundation for a child's development.

What Is Self-Esteem?

When parents and teachers of young children talk about the need for good self-esteem, they usually mean that children should have "good feelings" about themselves. With young children, self-esteem refers to the extent to which they expect to be accepted and valued by the adults and peers who are important to them.

Children with a healthy sense of self-esteem feel that the important adults in their lives accept them, care about them, and would go out of their way to ensure that they are safe and well. They feel that those adults would be upset if anything happened to them and would miss them if they were separated. Children with low self-esteem, on the other hand, feel that the important adults and peers in their lives do not accept them, do not care about them very much, and would not go out of their way to ensure their safety and well-being.

Sidebar: Children with ADHD and other behavioral disorders are particularly vulnerable to low self-esteem. They frequently experience school problems, have difficulty making friends, and lag behind their peers in psychosocial development.

During their early years, young children's self-esteem is based largely on their perceptions of how the important adults in their lives judge them. The extent to which children believe they have the characteristics valued by the important adults and peers in their lives figures greatly in the development of self-esteem. For example, in families and communities that value athletic ability highly, children who excel in athletics are likely to have a high level of self-esteem, whereas children who are less athletic or who are criticized as being physically inept or clumsy are likely to suffer from low self-esteem.

Families, communities, and ethnic and cultural groups vary in the criteria on which self-esteem is based. For example, some groups may emphasize physical appearance, and some may evaluate boys and girls differently. Stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are also factors that may contribute to low self-esteem among children.

How Can We Help Children Develop a Healthy Sense of Self-Esteem?

The foundations of self-esteem are laid early in life when infants develop attachments with the adults who are responsible for them. When adults readily respond to their cries and smiles, babies learn to feel loved and valued. Children come to feel loved and accepted by being loved and accepted by people they look up to. As young children learn to trust their parents and others who care for them to satisfy their basic needs, they gradually feel wanted, valued, and loved.

Self-esteem is also related to children's feelings of belonging to a group and being able to adequately function in their group. When toddlers become preschoolers, for example, they are expected to control their impulses and adopt the rules of the family and community in which they are growing. Successfully adjusting to these groups helps to strengthen feelings of belonging to them.

One point to make is that young children are unlikely to have their self-esteem strengthened from excessive praise or flattery. On the contrary, it may raise some doubts in children; many children can see through flattery and may even dismiss an adult who heaps on praise as a poor source of support--one who is not very believable.

The following points may be helpful in strengthening and supporting a healthy sense of self-esteem in your child:

  • As they grow, children become increasingly sensitive to the evaluations of their peers. You and your child's teachers can help your child learn to build healthy relationships with his or her peers.
  • When children develop stronger ties with their peers in school or around the neighborhood, they may begin to evaluate themselves differently from the way they were taught at home. You can help your child by being clear about your own values and keeping the lines of communication open about experiences outside the home.
  • Children do not acquire self-esteem at once nor do they always feel good about themselves in every situation. A child may feel self-confident and accepted at home but not around the neighborhood or in a preschool class. Furthermore, as children interact with their peers or learn to function in school or some other place, they may feel accepted and liked one moment and feel different the next. You can help in these instances by reassuring your child that you support and accept him or her even while others do not.
  • A child's sense of self-worth is more likely to deepen when adults respond to the child's interests and efforts with appreciation rather than just praise. For example, if your child shows interest in something you are doing, 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. Flattery and praise, on the contrary, distract children from the topics they are interested in. Children may develop a habit of showing interest in a topic just to receive flattery.
  • Young children are more likely to benefit from tasks and activities that offer a real challenge than from those that are merely frivolous or fun. For example, you can involve your child in chores around the house, such as preparing meals or caring for pets, that stretch his or her abilities and give your child a sense of accomplishment.
  • 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.
  • You can help your child develop and maintain healthy self-esteem by helping him or her cope with defeats, rather than emphasizing constant successes and triumphs. During times of disappointment or crisis, your child's weakened self-esteem can be strengthened when you let the child know that your love and support remain unchanged. When the crisis has passed, you can help your child reflect on what went wrong. The next time a crisis occurs, your child can use the knowledge gained from overcoming past difficulties to help cope with a new crisis. A child's sense of self-worth and self-confidence is not likely to deepen when adults deny that life has its ups and downs.


Parents can play an important role in strengthening children's self-esteem by treating them respectfully, taking their views and opinions seriously, and expressing appreciation to them. Above all, parents must keep in mind that self-esteem is an important part of every child's development.


  1. Amundson, K. 1991. 101 Ways Parents Can Help Students Achieve. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.
  2. Cutright, M. C. February 1992. "Self-Esteem: The Key to a Child's Success and Happiness." PTA Today 17 (4): 5-6.
  3. Dusa, G. S. February 1992. "15 Ways Parents Can Boost Self-Esteem." Learning 20 (6): 26-27.
  4. Isenberg, J., and N.L. Quisenberry. February 1988. "Play: A Necessity for All Children." A position paper of the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI). Childhood Education 64 (3): 138-145. EJ 367 943.
  5. Katz, L.G. 1993. Distinctions Between Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. ED 363 452.
  6. Katz, L.G., and S.C. Chard. 1989. Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. ED 326 302.
  7. Kramer, P. April 1992. "Fostering Self-Esteem Can Keep Kids Safe and Sound." PTA Today 17 (6): 10-11.
  8. Markus, H.R., and S. Kitayama. 1991. "Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotions, and Motivation." Psychological Review 98 (2): 224-253.
  9. McDaniel, S. April 1986. "Political Priority #1: Teaching Kids To Like Themselves." New Options 27: 1.
  10. National Association of Elementary School Principals. 1990. Early Childhood Education and the Elementary School Principal: Standards for Quality Programs for Young Children. Alexandria, VA: NAESP.
  11. National Association of Elementary School Principals. 1991. The Little Things Make a Big Difference: How To Help Your Children Succeed in School. Alexandria, VA: NAESP.
  12. Popkin, Michael, H. 1993. Active Parenting Today: For Parents of 2 to 12 Year Olds. Parent's Guide. Marietta, GA: Active Parenting Publishers.

Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education
Author: Lilian Katz, 1995

Reviewed by athealth on February 5, 2014.