By Jacqueline Siempelkamp, MS, NCC, LPC
Positive self-esteem has a powerful influence on mental health. It can help us seek healthy relationships, boost self-confidence, and feel secure in our abilities to make decisions. On the flip side, having poor self-esteem can contribute to having problems with addiction, depression, and anxiety. Now more than ever, young people are experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to the effects of COVID-19. Since the pandemic, children and youth have reported significant increases in feelings of fear and panic to their parents, school personnel, and mental health professionals. We know that having positive self-esteem can help them cope with these stressors… so how do we understand and support children’s healthy self-esteem?
There are several experiences in childhood that may lead to poor self-esteem later as an adult: disapproving authority figures, conflict in the home (witnessed or experienced by the child), lack of support (academic, emotional, etc.), trauma, and/or experienced invalidation. Children seek safety and refuge in their families, and if these needs aren’t being met, it can understandably result in greater struggles later in life. But what about children who are safe and have parents who meet their needs? Youth can have the most wonderful parents and still experience feelings of inadequacy and invalidation. Parents and other caring adults certainly want what is best for children and desire for them to have confidence and good self-worth. Sometimes, however, we are unknowingly missing opportunities to encourage independence and self-efficacy.
Let’s talk about what we can do to boost children’s self-esteem and give them a foundation to lead happy and healthy lives in the future. These tips can also be helpful for adults as well! It is never too late to learn how to nourish our own sense of self-worth.
Validate feelings: Humans naturally seek connection and it is incredibly important to feel understood by those with whom we surround ourselves. Even if we are unable to fully empathize with our child’s emotions, we can ask questions and try to put ourselves in their shoes.
- Infant and toddler: This age group is notorious for meltdowns over seemingly small occurrences. However, the emotions your child is experiencing are very real for them and it is crucial to reflect on how they are feeling to show care and support. “You’re feeling sad,” or, “You must be feeling hurt,” are great ways to show you understand their experience. Reflecting on these emotional words will help children learn to express themselves better and discover there are no “wrong” feelings.
- Elementary age and pre-teen: Regularly reflecting feelings is important in building empathy and emotional intelligence. This age group can begin to self-reflect and will become more aware of the “how” and “why” behind their emotions. Conflict resolution is a common skill exercised in this age range. If there is conflict between siblings, friends, etc., it is important to learn your child’s point of view and extract those emotions out of the situation.
- Teenager and young adult: Feeling understood is incredibly important to this age group, and can be a defining factor in developing closeness and vulnerability. Teens especially may misinterpret your misunderstanding of their feelings as dismissing their emotions or even disagreeing with them. Model the behavior you seek by continuing to validate their experiences and provide support. For example, you don’t have to agree with a choice they made but can still affirm the emotions they were going through at that time.
Encourage competence and mastery: People build confidence in themselves by learning to master tasks that can be initially challenging for them to complete. It is important to encourage trial and error, even if there is frustration related to not getting it quite right the first time.
- Infant and toddler: Although still reliant on their parents, this age group is learning to complete tasks on their own and enjoys exploring their own abilities. It is encouraging to this age group to help with tasks that adults are doing—whether it is putting away toys, feeding or grooming a pet, or assisting with making a meal (i.e. mixing ingredients, etc.). The tasks may not be done perfectly, but with practice, the young child will do it more accurately and feel a sense of accomplishment.
- Elementary age and pre-teen: Children in this age group generally want to be given the freedom to do some things on their own and make some of their own decisions. With guidance and support, allow children at this age to make some decisions, based on choices you are okay with. This age group may be trying new things they have not done before, like a new sport or instrument. Encourage them to stick with the activity and they will come to find that with consistency they’ll develop a skill they didn’t have before.
- Teenager and young adult: A youth in high school or college is practicing independence and defining themselves as individuals. It is important to allow self-exploration and give them the space to figure out what works best for them. It can be difficult to let them take ownership of their school work or extracurricular activities, but doing so will help them develop responsibility and confidence in being able to master the work on their own.
Strengthen internal self-worth: We often compare ourselves to others to see “how well” we are doing. These comparisons can then be mistranslated into determining how good of a person we are based on these external markers. It is crucial to model and encourage internal validation versus external to promote positive self-worth that is not based on others’ opinions of us.
- Infant and toddler: This age group may often show us their natural ability to affirm themselves. Echo the positive attitudes they express by reflecting what they share with you: “You feel proud of yourself for stacking those blocks on top of each other,” or “You did that all by yourself.” This can also be an important time to show the importance of looking within to determine our worth. A child may draw a picture and ask your opinion. Before exclaiming what a great job they did, ask your child what they think of the picture. Your encouragement is just as important as letting them share their own excitement as well.
- Elementary age and pre-teen: Comparing ourselves tends to start in this age group. We begin to notice differences among our peers and can mistakenly link our strengths to self-worth. You may hear comments like, “Jimmy is better at soccer than me,” or “I stink at math—I am bad at school.” Help challenge these thoughts by saying something like, “I see you putting a lot of effort into soccer,” or “Math is tough, but you are still a great student.” Help children this age adjust their internal dialogue to highlight their strengths and not base their self-worth on how they think they rank among peers.
- Teenager and young adult: This age group experiences external pressure to perform well and it can be difficult at times for them to see how great they really are. Encourage your child to come up with positive statements about themselves they know to be true: “I am a caring friend,” or “I know I am trying my best.” Helping adolescents remind themselves of their positive attributes will help them internalize these messages and develop positive self-worth.
Good self-esteem can make a positive impact on our mental health—being confident in our own abilities can get us through difficult situations that we will inevitably go through at one point or another. The current health crisis has been stressful and difficult on our nation’s adults, and definitely on our young people too. Now is the time to help kids strengthen skills to cope with heightened stress and anxiety.
Parents, teachers, and other caring adults offer a strong support for developing children’s self-esteem and using these skills creates a foundation for healthy and confident adults in the future.