Health Agenda

Mental Health

Building healthy self-esteem in kids

While parents may not be able to protect children from every tough challenge they’re going to face, we can give them some strategies to help them cope.

When we talk about our children and what we wish for them as they grow up and enter the world as young adults, we throw around some common words and ideas. Positive body image. Confidence. Healthy self-esteem. But do we ever stop to think about what these attributes really are, what they look like and how we as parents and carers can help build them in our children?

Nurturing healthy and positive self-esteem in our kids is something we can do every day.

What is self-esteem?

Simply put, self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. A person with balanced or healthy self-esteem is happy in their own skin and doesn’t need to feel superior to others to feel good about themselves.

Healthy, or well-balanced self-esteem means recognising that while we aren’t the best at everything, neither is anyone else, and that’s okay.

“Self-esteem is how we feel about how worthy we are, and is linked to self-efficacy, or how well we think we can do something,” says child psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard.

Children with good, positive or healthy self-esteem:

  • like themselves and feel liked by others
  • recognise their strengths and weaknesses, without attaching feelings of superiority or failure
  • understand that making mistakes is normal
  • feel proud of their efforts and achievements.

On the flipside, unhealthy or low self-esteem can ultimately lead us into a negative relationship with ourselves. Children with low self-esteem may feel like they aren’t as good as others, aren’t as well liked, or can’t do things that others find easy.

Causes of low self-esteem

Similar to depression or severe anxiety disorders, low self-esteem in children can be traced to things like experiencing trauma, abuse or illness.

However, there are many more everyday influences on self-esteem that effect how a child feels about themselves and their talents, skills and qualities.

“Children learn by watching their parents,” says Rita. “How to practise self-care, as well as your inner voice and self-critical talk all come from parents.”

Children will model behaviours they see at home. If a parent voices their mistakes as disasters or all-out failures, so their children may see their mistakes as marks against them as people.

How to build healthy self-esteem in kids

There are many things we can do at home to help our children build healthy self-esteem.

Stop negative self-talk

“How you talk to yourself will influence how your children talk to themselves,” says Rita. “Be happy to lose. Teach them that mistakes are part of how we learn. If you don’t get a job you applied for, or something else didn’t go well, instead of focusing on the failure, highlight the positives.”

Tip: Instead of saying, “I totally messed up, what a waste of time”, say, “I’m disappointed, but I know I tried my best and this experience can help me do better next time.”

Let children fail

“Kids who have always been allowed to win, and been told they are the best and are perfect, don’t know how to cope when they do fail at something,” says Rita. “It’s like a trauma and it can make them feel unsafe.”

Tip: Instead of letting your child win every time you play a board game or throw a basketball around, teach them new skills and let them see how they grow and improve. Celebrate the improvements and the joy of doing the activity, more than an ultimate goal of winning.

Encourage kids to find their own solutions

It can be hard to stand back and let our children figure out tricky things by themselves. But allowing them to find their own solutions, or letting them fix a mistake, can help build kids’ self-esteem and give them coping mechanisms for when things do go wrong.

Tip: Instead of swooping in the next time your child spills some water, or knocks over a plate of food, stand back and give them a chance to fix the issue. This can foster a sense of independence and growth in the child, while letting them see that you trust them to be able to handle difficult moments.

Give them unconditional love

Heaping praise on our youngsters when they do well at something is easy, but it can also lead to our kids feeling pressured to always succeed, or even believe that our love for them is tied to their successes and not who they are.

Tip: Instead of only congratulating children when they do well in a test or a sports game, remember to praise how hard they tried or the time they spent on a task. And, don’t forget to recognise and praise other attributes they display, such as kindness to a younger sibling or friend, or a thoughtful or considerate act.

Getting help with self-esteem in kids

Sometimes our children need a bit of extra help.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

The program provides fast and confidential access to a team of experienced child psychologists as well as courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There are also resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021

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