Self-esteem, or the ability to feel good about ourselves, is essential if we are to be happy and successful. Children need to have a sense of their own worth to be able to respond well to life’s many challenges. Experiences throughout childhood shape self-esteem. Parents, friends, relatives, teachers, peers, caregivers, other adults, and the media all have an influence on a child’s self- esteem.

Ways to build self-esteem

As a parent, you play a major role in shaping your child’s self-esteem. Here are some ways to help your child feel good about herself:

  • Acknowledge and encourage your child’s strengths and special talents. Provide opportunities for your child to participate in things she is good at, such as music, sports, dance, theatre, or community service. If your child has a special ability in a subject at school, check with her teacher to see if she can tutor or help out with younger children.
  • Help your child to have some “un-programmed” time. It is becoming more and more difficult for children to find time to be alone for reflection or simple pleasures like reading, but this time can provide opportunities to “sort things out.”
  • Show confidence in your child’s ability to achieve. Give your child the message that you believe he is capable and you expect him to do his best. This can be as simple as saying, “I know you can do it.”
  • Focus on your child’s behaviour rather than on her ability or character. Try saying, “You did five math problems all by yourself! You really worked hard!” rather than, “You got all five problems right! You’re so smart!”
  • As your child matures, give him increasing responsibilities. Even preschool children can participate by helping to set the table, putting out food for the family pet, or picking up their toys. A school-age child can gradually take on full responsibility for tasks such as feeding the pet, caring for his own room, or doing his own laundry. By the time he is ten or older, you can encourage his interest in babysitting or taking on a leadership position at school.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to make choices and decisions in everyday situations. Ask your child, “What do you think?” or “What would you rather do?” about choosing an activity, shopping for clothes, or planning her time.
  • Acknowledge accomplishments, no matter how small. Take notice of day-to-day things, like the fact that your child has made her bed or cleared her dishes from the table.
  • Help your child to feel pride in his efforts and improvements. If your child’s math grade has improved from a C- to a B-, be sure to show that you are pleased with the result of his hard work, rather than acting disappointed that the grade was not higher. Use positive words like, “I know you worked very hard. I hope you are really proud of yourself.”
  • Keep praise specific. When you want to praise your child, talk about the specifics of what he has just done, rather than using words like “great” and “wonderful” for every situation.
  • When your child is feeling discouraged, help her see the positive. Remind her of her past achievements and special skills. Help her to think about how to approach her task or problem in a different way. Developing confidence in her ability to solve problems is a key element in self-esteem.
  • Try to be helpful, not critical. Respond in ways that will help your child learn how to improve. Instead of criticizing your child’s homework habits, try saying, “You seem to be having trouble getting started on your English paper. Let’s see if we can figure out what’s holding you up.”
  • Learn to accept your child for who he is rather than who you would like him to be. Avoid comparisons with others. Recognize what is unique about your child and help him realize his potential.
  • Avoid teasing and negative comments. Even if you are trying to be humorous, calling a child “fatty” or telling him he is clumsy will not change his behaviour and will wound his self-confidence.
  • Teach your child that it’s OK to make mistakes. Reassure her that no one gets everything right all of the time.
  • Support your child’s attempts to try new things. Help her to feel that she doesn’t have to be a “star” at everything she tries. The pressure to succeed may lead a child to limit herself to activities she knows she can already do.
  • Help your child take responsibility for the negative consequences of his own behaviour. Learning to acknowledge and try to repair harm or damage done to others is a far more effective tool to build a child’s self-respect than blame or punishment.
  • Show your child that she is important by making time for her. Stop what you are doing, ask her about her day, and listen carefully to her responses. If you have no time to listen, tell your child you will talk later and make sure that you do. When you are helping your child with schoolwork, don’t allow other family members to interrupt.
  • Help your child feel that he is an important member of the family whose contributions are valued and appreciated. Ask your child for suggestions about vacation plans, family recreation time, or parties. Insist that your child help out around the house. Be sure to show your appreciation.
  • Show your child respect as an individual. Let him see that adults make mistakes too. If you lose control of your temper and shout at your child, and then apologize, you set a positive example for him. He feels his worth as an individual, and learns about taking responsibility for his own behaviour.
  • Remember to say “I love you,” and to give hugs and kisses no matter how old your child is.


Dealing with challenges to your child’s self-esteem

The media

Parents often feel they have no control over their child’s exposure to the media. It is true that children are bombarded with unrealistic images about how they should look, what they need to own and wear to gain approval, and “heroes” who rely on violence to achieve their goals. You can make a difference. Don’t be surprised if your child says, “All the kids are doing it.” As his parent, you can have the last word. Here are some things to try:

  • Shape your child’s use of television. Try to limit the amount of time your child spends watching television to no more than an hour a day. Help your child to plan his television watching by talking with him about the programs he wants to see each day. Use the television child-rating system to back up your rules.
  • Talk to the parents of your child’s friends. There is added strength in numbers. If you and other parents are trying to do the same thing, you are creating a climate of support for the children.
  • Work with your child’s school. See if you and other parents can get the school to sponsor a “No TV” week -- or even month.
  • Have rules about the kinds of comics, magazines, and video games your child can buy or use. You can refuse to buy items that don’t meet your standards.
  • Talk with your child. It may be the case that your child will have access to programs, games, and reading matter that you don’t approve of at the houses of other children, or in video arcades. It is important to talk with your child about why the images he sees are not like real life. Tell him how you feel about images or behaviour in them that offends you.
  • Offer alternatives. Find and help your child choose programs and items that fit your family’s values. Provide activities for the two of you or for the whole family that take her away from the television set. Involve her friends in outings you organize.

Teasing and name-calling

Unfortunately children are often exposed to teasing and name-calling from other children. Most of this is short-lived, especially if your child is able to display confidence and brush it off. With the increasing numbers of children who are overweight, however, this teasing can go on over longer periods of time. Here are some things you can do to support your child’s self-confidence and self-esteem:

  • Help your child to eat in a healthy way at home. Sometimes overweight children who are teased react by eating even more. By providing healthy meals and snacks and encouraging him to play actively, you can combat this tendency.
  • Don’t call extra attention to her weight or immediately start her on a “diet.” This only reinforces the idea that she is inadequate.
  • Help your child to look as attractive as possible. Clothing manufacturers are now offering clothes designed for larger children in the same styles their thinner friends wear. They don’t have to wear shapeless clothing that camouflages their bodies.
  • Help your child to recognize and be proud of his own talents and abilities.
  • Find role models of successful people in the community who are overweight.


Recent research has shown that being bullied can cause lasting damage to a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. If your child is being bullied, it is important for you, as a parent, to intervene

  • Talk to your child about his own feelings. If your child is preschool or kindergarten age, encourage him to express his feelings to the other child by saying “I don’t like it when you do that -- I won’t play with you.” At this age, this is often enough to stop the behaviour, even if it is necessary to repeat it several times.
  • Help your child to remember his own strengths and capabilities. An elementary-age child may need help to avoid feeling powerless and helpless in front of a bully. Help your child think about what he can do to stop the other child’s behaviour.
  • If you see bullying taking place, with your child or other children, intervene and stop it. It is important for children to know that adults will not tolerate this behaviour by thinking it is “just kid stuff.”
  • If bullying persists, or seems to be a pattern in your child’s group or school, talk to the other parents, to your child’s child care provider, or your child’s teachers at school. Even teachers may need to be updated on the harmful effects of bullying.


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