Self-esteem is crucial to children’s academic achievement, participation, engagement in activities, social relationships, and, ultimately, their sense of wellbeing.
Children low in self-esteem tend to be shy and introverted, with self-imposed limitations and a fixed mindset. Those high in self-esteem are enthusiastic, active, feel a greater sense of worth, and, perhaps most importantly, feel comfortable with who they are (Keshky & Samak, 2017; Dweck, 2017).
It follows that supporting a child as they grow and develop their self-esteem can improve their psychological wellbeing and what they get out of, and put into, life.
This article explores self-esteem in child development and offers counselors, therapists, and parents tools to foster a sense of worth.
Before you read on, you might like to download three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself, but will also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
This article contains:
- What Is Self-Esteem in Child Development?
- 5 Causes of Low Self-Esteem
- 7 Ways to Build Children’s Self-Esteem
- 6 Helpful Activities
- 4 Worksheets for Building Self-Esteem
- Dealing With a Child With Low Self-Esteem: 10 Tips
- 4 Books on the Topic
- PositivePsychology.com Relevant Tools
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Self-Esteem in Child Development?
Self-esteem is a measure of how we see ourselves–our sense of self-worth.
Being high in self-esteem makes us feel valued, boosting our self-belief, ability to perform, subjective wellbeing, and overall psychological health. It facilitates our growth as individuals and provides a buffer against setbacks and failures (Ellis, 2019; Jordan, Zeigler-Hill, & Cameron, 2017).
Low self-esteem has the opposite effect, to the point where we may not even like who we are (Abdel-Khalek, 2016; Orth, 2017).
And, far from being fixed, self-esteem “waxes and wanes through life” (Robins & Trześniewski, 2005). Although relatively high in young children–possibly due to unrealistic positive self-views–it lowers as they grow, perhaps partly due to a poor self-image.
Self-esteem then climbs through adulthood, peaking at around the age of 60, before finally decreasing in old-age (Robins & Trześniewski, 2005; Orth, 2017).
The importance of self-esteem in children
Self-esteem plays a crucial role in children’s happiness, sense of worth, and overall development. After all, children higher in self-esteem feel more confident and capable. They are proud of who they are and what they achieve and are comfortable asking for help and standing up for themselves (Cunningham, 2019).
Higher self-esteem in child development promotes:
- Resilience – the ability to recover from mistakes and failure
- A sense of control that is crucial to intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2018)
- Independent activity
- Feeling respected
- Security in relationship building
- The ability to make well-balanced decisions despite peer pressure
A lack of positive feedback or appropriate support can lead to low self-esteem and:
- Feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and anxiety
- Loss of interest in learning
- Difficulty making and keeping friends
- Withdrawal and increased likelihood to bend to peer pressure
- Self-defeating coping skills, for example, avoidance and early quitting
By adolescence, self-esteem is a factor in health and welfare, and a predictor for students’ academic achievement (Nguyen, Wright, Dedding, Pham, & Bunders, 2019). Indeed, elevated self-esteem leads to more positive outcomes–now and later–identified by occupational success, better social relationships, improved coping skills, positive perception by peers, and an increased sense of wellbeing.
On the other hand, low self-esteem is related to antisocial behavior, substance abuse, and even, catastrophically, suicide cases.
Without a doubt, creating an environment that supports the growth of self-esteem, such as setting goals, has far-reaching benefits. When successful, children with appropriate support can see that hard work pays off, and they are ready for new challenges. When they fail, they bounce back and still feel good about themselves.
5 Causes of Low Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is a highly complex psychological construct.
At both a state and a trait level, its influences include genetic, environmental, and many other psychological factors that promote or reduce its effectiveness (Bleidorn, Hufer, Kandler, Hopwood, & Riemann, 2018).
However, while its exact makeup and interrelationships with other elements of our personality remain unclear, research has uncovered several causes of low self-esteem:
Perhaps counterintuitively, praise can be a significant factor in low self-esteem (Brummelman, Nelemans, Thomaes, & Orobio de Castro, 2017). Findings suggest that “overly positive, inflated praise” sets unattainable standards for children and can ultimately reduce self-esteem while increasing narcissistic tendencies. The answer appears to be in praising effort rather than ability.
Being the victim of bullying, aggressive, and hostile behavior results in several adverse outcomes, including low self-esteem. The effect can be long-lasting, and those already lacking in self-esteem are more susceptible than others.
High body mass index (BMI)
Research has identified that high BMI in children can be a precursor to low self-esteem. Reducing BMI may positively affect feelings of self-worth (Hesketh, Wake, & Waters, 2004).
Depression, anxiety, and academic stress are factors in low self-esteem and poor quality of life (Nguyen et al., 2019).
The comments and communication that children receive from their parents or caregivers have a large effect on self-esteem. For example, relentless negative feedback (you are stupid, useless, lazy, etc.), suggesting life would be better without them, ignoring or treating children as an annoyance, and unfavorable comparisons with other children can all damage a child’s sense of self-worth.
Research has also identified several indirect factors that appear to impact a child’s self-esteem, including gender, performance at school, parents’ education level and employment status, and socioeconomic status (Nguyen et al., 2019).
7 Ways to Build Children’s Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is vital for children’s confidence in themselves and their ability to overcome challenges (Cunningham, 2019).
Participation and overcoming problems, asking for help, and receiving appropriate support are all positive takeaways that build self-esteem and self-confidence, whether successful or not. The caregiver’s challenge is to balance between being supportive, overprotective, and realistic.
The following are all factors that can positively influence the growth of a child’s self-esteem and encourage them to believe in themselves:
- Praise – praise children for their effort rather than for successful outcomes.
- Friends – encourage them to maintain a small number of friends who accept them for who they are to promote a sense of belonging.
- Strengths – help children identify and use their strengths to make a significant, positive difference on themselves and those around them (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
- Foster love – let the child know they are loved and valued. The simple act of saying you love them, with no reason or trigger to do so, can be powerful.
- Create a sense of belonging – promote an understanding of being part of something bigger–a family or community–by sharing family photos and stories, joining groups, participating in community festivals, and creating family rituals.
- Try new things – encourage the child to find and try new things (whether they are successful or not).
- Handle problems – encourage children to overcome difficulties by thinking calmly, trying different approaches, asking for help, and practicing kindness to themselves when things don’t work out.
6 Helpful Activities
Self-esteem is not fixed; it can be changed. As a parent, teacher, or therapist, there are ways to work with children to grow their domain-specific and, over time, their global self-esteem (Brown, Dutton, & Cook, 2001).
The following activities are not all specific to self-esteem, but help children create a flexible, growth-oriented mindset by focusing on being confident in who they are.
Tailor each of the following activities for the age of the child and the situation:
Create a box of memories
Find a big enough box to store certificates, pictures, and objects they have made at school, at home, or in youth groups.
Discuss with the child what sorts of things to place in the box. Suggest that it includes not only medals or awards for winning, but also certificates or recognition received for hard work or extra effort put in.
Place objects in the box over a semester or school year.
Return and review the box’s contents over the months and ask the child to remember how hard they worked, the obstacles overcome, and the difficulties faced.
Consider what was challenging. How did they overcome it? How does it compare with challenges now?
Work with the child individually or in a group to design affirmations. Write the positive statements down in a journal or separately on cards and stick them to a whiteboard or fridge door.
Encourage the child to regularly revisit the affirmations–perhaps daily at first–and build a self-narrative that will enhance their self-esteem.
Strength in differences
Often we feel pressure to look, behave, think, and feel the same as others. But while it is essential to recognize the similarities we all share, we should also register our differences and identify our strengths.
Discuss with the child the importance of being yourself while recognizing what makes them unique.
Ask the child to:
- Write down “My Strengths” at the top of a blank piece of paper.
- Underneath, write a list of all the ways they are different from their friends, relatives, classmates, people they know, and people they don’t know.
- Ask them: what makes you, you?
- Beside each, write down why each ability or strength might be useful to them now or maybe in the future.
- Draw a horizontal line below the last one, and ask the child to add any new abilities or strengths they would like to have.
5 things I like about me
Explain to the child that we must remind ourselves how special, unique, and amazing we all are.
Work with them, using their words and some prompting, to complete the Things I Like About Me exercise.
Ask the child to spend some time reviewing the list and return to it over the days and weeks ahead to reflect and increase their sense of self-worth.
My ‘love letter’ to myself
Building on the above exercise, identify and celebrate the child’s strengths using the My ‘Love Letter’ to Myself exercise.
The output is a set of statements, each beginning with “I am…” that contains the child’s positive qualities, how they benefit themselves and others, and how to foster them going forward.
Work together to understand how the child could use their strengths more often.
Journaling can be an interesting and enlightening exercise that can be a great way to think about yourself, relive past successes, and reflect on strengths and positive qualities.
Use these Self-Love Journal prompts to introduce more self-directed kindness and compassion into the child’s life. Review the journal at the end of each week and celebrate the successes and achievements–large or small.
4 Worksheets for Building Self-Esteem
The following worksheets provide tools to use with individual and groups of children to build self-esteem, either directly or by strengthening other, related psychological factors:
Make a manifesto for YOU
In the excellent Dare to Be You, Matthew Syed describes a plan he came up with in his youth to find and follow his own path, question the world he found himself in, and change what wasn’t working well in his life. He describes his plan as “a manifesto for daring to be ME” (Syed & Triumph, 2020).
Working with the child, use the Make a Manifesto for YOU worksheet and create a set of values or statements according to which they might like to live.
Develop a growth mindset
A growth mindset embraces the view that skills and abilities can develop over time with practice and that there is more than one way to tackle a challenge. A fixed mindset unhelpfully adopts the belief that skills and abilities are set, and certain obstacles cannot be overcome (Dweck, 2017).
Whether a child adopts a fixed or growth mindset profoundly affects the life they lead and the adult they become. Adopting a growth mindset means they are ready to step out of their comfort zone, experience change, embrace it, and learn.
Use the following questions (modified from Dweck, 2017) to build an understanding of what a fixed and a growth mindset look like, and what advantages each may have:
|Fixed mindset||Growth mindset|
|Do I want to look smart?||Do I want to learn?|
|Do I avoid challenges?||Do I embrace challenges?|
|Do I give up too easily?||Do I persist, whatever is thrown at me?|
|Is effort fruitless and a waste of time?||Is effort the path to being good at something?|
|Do I ignore useful feedback?||Do I listen to and learn from criticism?|
|Do other people’s successes threaten me?||Do I learn from others’ successes and feel inspired?|
Ask the child, what are the advantages and disadvantages of a growth versus a fixed mindset? Can you think of examples where you showed both fixed and growth mindset thinking?
Self-acceptance is a hallmark of accepting who you are and building a healthy relationship with the self.
The Self-Acceptance Meditation worksheet encourages acceptance of self despite weaknesses or deficiencies and can work well with older children or young adults.
Use the compassionate phrase “may I” to provide a loving-kindness perception of yourself.
Three Good Things
The following worksheet works well with all ages. It can be performed more formally and in writing for older children, or spoken out loud for younger ones – especially as an end-of-day routine, in bed, before going to sleep.
Try out the Three Good Things exercise a few times a week to improve feelings of wellbeing and see the positive in each day.
You can find even more self-esteem worksheets in this article, aimed at teens and adults.
Dealing With a Child With Low Self-Esteem: 10 Tips
Being different can be a source of low self-esteem for many children.
Parents and caregivers should spend time with their children, discussing similarities between all of us while noting we are also unique, with strengths individual to each of us.
After all, while we may look different, we all have hopes, fears, and things that make us happy.
The following tips are for dealing with a child with low self-esteem (modified from Newman, 2020). They overlap and complement one another but may, at times, seem at odds. The challenge is to find an appropriate balance for the child and the situation:
- Listen to the child’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
- Create environments and situations where the child can succeed while supporting as required.
- Allow the child the freedom to make mistakes without judgment or criticism.
- Keep expectations realistic.
- Help the child deal with unpleasant thoughts in the absence of judgment.
- Enable the child to feel a greater sense of control.
- Reinforce that the child is loved for who they are; it is not conditional.
- Lead by example; show that you have a positive view of yourself.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Explain that they do not need to copy other people who appear successful or different; they are valuable for being themselves.
4 Books on the Topic
1. Dare to be you – Matthew Syed
This is a colorful, insightful, and valuable book that can be read alone by an older child or read together with an adult and discussed with younger children.
The book helps children (and even parents) to accept that there is no normal and that being different is okay and even a great thing.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. My Hidden Chimp – Steve Peters
This book helps children understand their emotions and behavior.
It brilliantly explains to children that sometimes the “chimp” brain takes over, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Mindset – Carol Dweck
This book is already a known classic.
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck created the Mindset book.
The book clarifies that as parents, we need to foster a growth mindset in children that will foster resilience while motivating.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read – Philippa Perry
While not focused on self-esteem, this remarkable book begins by looking at the parents’ psychology before turning its attention to the children.
It has excellent lessons for anyone attempting to parent a child, even if only learning how to break negative cycles and patterns.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com Relevant Tools
Our very own Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass© will help you and your clients end their unhealthy search for self-esteem. You will learn how to build a lasting sense of being good enough, regardless of failures, meeting external standards, or gaining approval from others.
The Self-Esteem Journal for Kids is an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand daily journal designed for children. Each day has different prompts that encourage the child to reflect on positive things that happened each day.
This article on Self-Esteem Tools and Activities can be an invaluable resource for the growth and development of your clients.
A Take-Home Message
Self-esteem is fundamental to a child’s development, psychological wellbeing, and sense of who they are.
Being high in self-esteem is linked to being more resilient, having a greater sense of control, the capacity to act independently, feeling secure, and experiencing a sense of worth.
Perhaps most importantly, it offers the child comfort and confidence in feeling different and individual. After all, every single one of us is unique. But as they grow, children (and even adults) often feel the need to conform to the pack, to be subject to peer pressure.
Self-esteem gives the child ‘permission’ to develop in the way they want; it provides psychological support to be comfortable in who they are mentally and physically. For that reason alone, whether as parents, therapists, or counselors, we should invest time and money in fostering that sense of self-worth in children.
Try out the worksheets and tools with children–tailor and provide support depending on their age and abilities–and encourage their sense of worth, while giving them a foothold to reach positive outcomes.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download these three Self-Compassion Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass© is an innovative, comprehensive training template for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients accept themselves, treat themselves with more compassion, and see themselves as worthy individuals.
- Abdel-Khalek, A. M. (2016). Introduction to the psychology of self-esteem. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ahmed_Abdel-Khalek/publication/311440256_Introduction_to_the_Psychology_of_self-esteem/links/587e475308ae9a860ff53995/Introduction-to-the-Psychology-of-self-esteem.pdf.
- Bleidorn, W., Hufer, A., Kandler, C., Hopwood, C. J., & Riemann, R. (2018). A nuclear twin family study of self-esteem. European Journal of Personality, 32(3), 221–232.
- Brown, J. D., Dutton, K. A., & Cook, K. E. (2001). From the top down: Self-esteem and self-evaluation. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 615–631.
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- Keshky, M., & Samak, Y. (2017). The development of self-esteem in children: Systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Psychology & Behavior Analysis, 3(1).
- Little, E. (2017, July 7). About self-esteem: Children 1-8 years. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/about-self-esteem.
- Newman, S. (2020). The importance of self-esteem – NIU – Child Development and Family Center. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.chhs.niu.edu/child-center/resources/articles/self-esteem.shtml.
- Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. Cincinnati, OH: VIA Institute on Character.
- Nguyen, D. T., Wright, E. P., Dedding, C., Pham, T. T., & Bunders, J. (2019). Low self-esteem and its association with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in Vietnamese secondary school students: A cross-sectional study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10.
- Orth, U. (2017). The lifespan development of self-esteem. In J. Specht (Ed.), Personality development across the lifespan (pp. 181–195). Elsevier Academic Press.
- Peters, S. (2018). My hidden chimp: Helping children to understand and manage their emotions, thinking and behaviour with ten helpful habits. London: Studio Press.
- Robins, R. W., & Trześniewski, K. H. (2005). Self-esteem development across the lifespan. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 158–162.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Syed, M., & Triumph, T. (2020). Dare to be you: Defy self-doubt, fearlessly follow your own path and be confidently you! London: Wren & Rook.
- Van Geel, M., Goemans, A., Zwaanswijk, W., Gini, G., & Vedder, P. (2018). Does peer victimization predict low self-esteem, or does low self-esteem predict peer victimization? Meta-analyses on longitudinal studies. Developmental Review, 49, 31–40.