Help build your child’s self-esteem

Building your child's self-esteem is essential for her success and development in life. Here's how you can do it.

By Arundhati Swamy

Help build your child’s self-esteem

She is a sweet 16, and has it all – the looks to die for, a talent beyond her years, academic achievement, even a couple of coveted titles! But none of these makes her feel fulfilled. She is unable to accept compliments or enjoy her achievements. There is an inexplicable vacuum deep inside. The world around her is in adulation and even envious of her, but she strangely feels that she is just average, sometimes even less than average!

She does not know it, but she carries deep-rooted memories of being told that whatever she did was just not good enough and that she always had to do better. Memories tucked away in the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind, triggered in the present, by anything even remotely related to ‘performance’. She did not know how to boost self-esteem.

Her limiting belief “I must achieve more, this is not good enough”.

The symptom: low self-esteem. The outcome: dissatisfaction, pushing too hard.

He is a young engineer, working his way up the executive ladder, technically very sound, and having excellent analytical skills. Just announce a crucial meeting, and he gets so stressed that he draws a blank. It is all there in his head but dare he speak? Words fail him; he stumbles and stutters, desperately searching for a way out. He presents a confused self and his parents are unable to increase his self-esteem.

Peers are surprised. They know how good he is at work, how clearly he thinks and how capable he is. Unknown to them, he is constantly haunted by fears of making a fool of himself. An early childhood experience taught him to feel ashamed and embarrassed when he once made a mistake in class, in front of other students.

His limiting belief “What if I make a mistake…” 

The symptom: low self-esteem. The outcome: confusion and doubt.

He is a quiet, non-interfering, conforming child. He goes with the crowd, accepts others’ decisions, pleases others, and goes out of his way to help them. He is described as ‘a wonderful boy’ by adults and peers because he never disagrees or argues with them. Beware! Behind that calm demeanour is an individual angry with himself, unable to express his ideas or stand up for himself, unable to say ‘no’ to others. He feels weak within and projects a weak self-image – an ideal victim for the big bullies.

His limiting belief “I don’t like myself…” 

The symptom: low self-esteem. The outcome: passive/submissive in childhood; aggressive/defiant in adolescence.

Then there are the unfortunate ones who have ‘high achieving’ older siblings. The situation is further compounded by well-meaning adults who expect the same, if not more, from the younger ones. They have unrealistic expectations and compare and deride the younger child for not emulating his sibling. They do not recognise the child’s abilities in other academic and non-academic areas and close the door to his world.

The child’s limiting belief “they expect too much…”

The symptom: low self-esteem. The outcome: underachievement.

What about the teenagers who crave for the latest gadgets, have expensive tastes? Only to lose interest within hours or days after these are acquired. They live lifestyles that do not suit them, that create value conflicts about wealth and power. People see through these pretensions and reject them anyway! For teenagers, it is a desperate search for something that is meaningful and lasting. 

Their limiting belief “Others are better than me….”

The symptom: low self-esteem. The outcome: demanding, lying, stealing etc.

Low self-esteem is a symptom of a deep-rooted sense of inadequacy and poor self-worth. Each of these individuals and groups described above has learnt to focus on the absence of something, not on the presence of what they are and what they have. This is a debilitating cycle that got set in motion, when at some crucial developmental stage, they had experienced a crisis; or when their fundamental needs were not adequately and appropriately met.

Self-esteem needs to be nurtured

A sense of worth must stem from deep inside one’s being, where it should have been nurtured through all the stages of growth. So, how do parents build self-confidence in children?

The influential theories of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson have contributed to our understanding of personality development through one’s lifespan. He identified the basic virtues and strengths that develop when children enjoy fulfilling relationships with their mother, parents, family, school, teachers, friends, peers and community.

Thus, through a variety of positive life experiences, a child learns to feel loved and valued during the total dependence phase of infancy. In the early childhood phase, the parents encourage the first steps in learning to do things, the enthusiasm to explore and understand that helps build will-power and self-control. Middle childhood is when the family supports children in their search for opportunities towards learning new skills. Teachers, friends and community help to build the preadolescent's efforts to learn, work well and progress towards feeling competent, responsible and capable, reinforcing self-esteem. The adolescent is growing up, developing an identity and self-image. This complex process is individualistic, yet teens require adult to cheer them on in their voyage of self-discovery.

Across the life span, the interplay of adult and peer interactions makes significant contributions towards building a child’s self-esteem and raising a confident child.

Thus, from infancy to late childhood, children are working through trust and hope, in exploring, and understanding their environment. This is the foundation on which they build their capacities, become industrious and gain self-confidence. Upon this foundation lies the future of growing up into young adults.

When children receive positive, encouraging messages through their critical stages of development, they are more likely to become caring and productive in their relationships and work, as young adults. The stage is now set for a fulfilling adult life!

The positive belief “I like myself. I am capable and valuable…”

The symptom: positive self-esteem, self-belief and self-worth.

The outcome: self-satisfaction and confidence in oneself, becoming industrious and assertive.

What leads to poor self-esteem

When parents are insensitive. Do adults choose to bring up children with low self-esteem? Not deliberately. Often ignorance about the developmental needs of children is the cause. Many adults believe that very young children do not understand most of what is happening around them, and therefore take the liberty to make callous, insensitive and judgmental remarks about them.

Young children’s minds are not mature enough to discern between untruth and reality, and so they accept almost everything as being true, including all the negative comments hurled their way, either in good humour or intentionally. The embarrassment and humiliation are stored in the unconscious as painful emotional experiences, which can get triggered by a random event. (Conversely, they will also accept the pleasant and complimentary comments as being true, storing the memory of happiness and satisfaction associated with the appreciation.) Poor self-esteem has its roots in the stored negative beliefs. They then perceive and interpret a situation from these beliefs. The negative perceptions produce negative behaviour and outcomes at a later date.

‘I am OK, so you should be OK’

More likely, it is their life experiences that adults draw upon. Typically it is, “what worked for me, should work for my child”. An oft-repeated justification is that “I turned out fine, in spite of all the negative comments I received from my parents and teachers”. This is not up for dispute, but do look deep into yourself and you may just find some remnants of low self-esteem still lurking there, asserting their influence in subtle ways.

Cultural influence

Perhaps cultural influences play a significant role in this programming of the mind. Ask a group of children to tell you one thing that they are good at or like about themselves and the chances are that a majority will squirm in discomfort, hesitate, look around at others and speak with formidable reluctance. A minority will tell you about themselves without inhibition, and will most likely draw unfavourable looks from the rest. They have been judged for ‘showing off’ and/or ‘arrogance’. Denial of one’s abilities is appreciated as modesty, a precious value strongly upheld in our culture. However, it is truly a misunderstood concept, one that needs correction.

Acknowledging one’s abilities is a sign of self-worth. To blow one’s trumpet while putting down someone else is ‘showing off’.

Health problems

Physical, emotional or neurological disorders are traumatic experiences for parents and children, leading to low self-esteem. Early intervention is crucial to help empower the child to overcome the challenge. A direct outcome is improved self-esteem.

How positive self-esteem helps

Very often, helpless parents meekly yield to their child’s irrational demands. In reality, such demands are an outcome of negative perceptions – of self and others. The child believes that material possessions are the only means to compensate for the self-worth that he lacks deep within. Such behaviour in children is often squarely blamed on peer pressure, ‘bad friends’ and ‘wrong company’.

Why is it that all children do not succumb to these? What makes them resistant to temptations and inappropriate behaviours (at least the more risky ones)?

The answer is evident – positive self-esteem. It is natural for self-esteem to fluctuate according to circumstances. It is the inner resources (positive memories and emotions) that help the self-esteem to stay within safe boundaries, to perceive and interpret situations in the present context, or to even bounce back from some of the life’s most difficult times.


Arundhati Swamy is a family and student counsellor from Chennai.

Watch the video below that discusses tips for building self-esteem in your child.