Healthy self-esteem— a clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses and the self-acceptance and self-confidence that goes with that picture— can be tough to measure in kids. As an adult, you can talk openly about your self-esteem being high or low, but how do you know if your kids feel good about themselves?
Because kids don’t have the skills or language to evaluate their self-esteem, listening to how they describe themselves and watching how they act can reveal a lot. If your child is consistently withdrawn and describes himself in negative terms, his self-esteem may need boosting. If your child is cheerful, talkative and fearless in trying new things, he probably has good self-esteem. How often your kids talk, smile and laugh; how interested they are in activities and people; how they describe themselves to others, and how well they are performing in school are good indicators of their self-esteem.
Kids are like sponges. Their self-esteem changes over time based on information they soak up about themselves. Adults are the mirrors in their lives that reflect who they are— good or bad. Parents are the mirrors kids look into most frequently and consistently to learn about themselves. As such, parents play a pivotal role in the level of self-esteem their kids develop.
How to Build Self-Esteem
The basic building blocks of self-esteem are: love, listening, patience, understanding, consistency and structure. Few parents would deny that they love their children. The question is, do your children feel loved? Love is the cornerstone while the remaining building blocks demonstrate love. Listening to your kids, being patient with their learning, being consistent in how you respond and what you expect, understanding their hurts and fears, and providing structure so they know what is and is not acceptable are all elements of love. Saying, “I love you” is easy. Showing “I love you” can be more difficult, and actions speak louder than words.
To enhance self-esteem in your kids, keep the basic building blocks— love, listening, patience, understanding, consistency and structure— in mind as you take the following steps:
1. Do a self-evaluation.
An effective way to raise self-esteem in your kids is to model healthy self-esteem. Look in the mirror. What do you see reflected there? Do you like what you see? If not, work on elevating your own self-esteem. Start by being kinder to yourself. If you’re hard on yourself, you’re likely to be either too hard on your kids or too lenient. It will be difficult for you to find a healthy balance point with your kids if you can’t find one with yourself.
2. Monitor your words and actions.
What parents say to, and how they act with their kids affects children’s self-esteem. Labels such as “lazy” or “selfish,” even said teasingly, get written into the code of a child’s self-esteem. These labels also become self-fulfilling. When parents say one thing and do another, they send conflicting messages. Your child’s self-esteem is more affected by what you do than by what you say. Remember, you’re the mirror your child is looking into. What will they see if you’re sitting with your nose stuck in the newspaper and saying “uh-huh” at all the wrong times when they’re talking? What will they see if you’re making eye contact with them, nodding, asking them questions and paraphrasing what you think they’re trying to tell you to make sure you understand? Which reflection would you rather see?
3. Help them succeed.
Be clear and specific in what you ask them to do. Picture the end result you’re looking for and work backwards so you can outline every step that will help them succeed. Instead of “clean your room,” try “put away your clothes and toys and make your bed.” Make sure they understand your instructions by asking them to repeat your request. Coach them along the way. Give them feedback on what they’re doing well and what they could improve. If you give them positive attention, they won’t seek negative attention.
4. Provide clear, consistent and firm structure.
Kids learn their limits and what is and isn’t good for them by the structure you set and the consistency with which you maintain that structure. Structure involves things like bedtime, study versus play or TV time, and when snacks are and are not allowed. As kids grow older, structure can and should change to reflect their needs and experiences.
Clarity and consistency is critical for kids. If you’re vague in your expectations or vacillate in your follow-through, they’ll figure that out and push limits, sometimes to see if you care. When things aren’t consistent, kids get confused. Simple structure or rules, consistently implemented, let kids know you care about them and their safety. Children are perceptive. They’ll play Mom off Dad, if they can get away with it. Kids who are allowed to run rampant don’t feel secure and don’t develop positive self-esteem. Setting limits and consequences shows kids you love them. When kids see that parents stand their ground and that consequences are reasonable and inevitable, everyone benefits. Knowing you care enough to say no helps your kids care more about themselves.
5. Find the balance point in expectations and praise.
Some parents set expectations that are too low and others too high. Some parents praise their kids effusively, and others hardly at all. Expectations and praise are best at the midpoint. Set expectations high enough to challenge your child, but not so high that fulfilling them is impossible. Praise kids too little and they don’t see a positive image in the mirror. Praise them too much and they see a fraud. Instead, praise your kids when you can be sincere, specific and when it has been earned. Describe their behavior versus them as a person (the same holds true for constructive criticism). Instead of, “You’re a good boy for making your bed,” say “You did a good job making your bed.” An added benefit of praise is that they’ll be more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.
Enhancing your child’s self-esteem doesn’t have to be an insurmountable task. Following these simple steps will make you and your kids happier!