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Low Self-Esteem in Kids, Part I: Forget What You've Heard—It's a Myth

by James Lehman, MSW
Low Self-Esteem in Kids, Part I: Forget What You've Heard—It's a Myth

Is your child struggling with low self-esteem? As a parent, it’s tough to stand by and see our children feeling like they don’t “measure up” or can’t handle things as well as their peers seem to do. Here, James Lehman, MSW debunks the myth of focusing on children’s feelings at the expense of teaching them how to master life-skills. Part I of a two-part series on “Self-Esteem and Kids.”

Self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect are interchangable phrases we use to identity the feeling of everything being OK, that we're going to be all right. Kids’ self-esteem is constantly being challenged because they’re constantly challenged with new things to experience. Every day in a child’s life, there are new opportunities and new tasks to deal with. And so their self-esteem, their sense of “I can handle it,” is constantly being put to the test. To state it simply, if your child is able to deal with things, if they have support and they learn how to solve life’s problems, their sense of self-esteem grows. If they don’t know how to manage this, their self-esteem diminishes and in fact, doesn’t develop the way it should.

You can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings.

One of the critical truths you need to know about your child’s self-esteem is that you cannot fix it as a parent. You'll go crazy, you’ll drive your kid crazy, and you'll find yourself having screaming arguments and fights trying to make all the pieces fit so that he doesn't experience any discomfort. Instead, you have to learn how to give your child the tools to deal with his problems. And make no bones about it, in this world, how to have self-esteem is a problem we all have to solve, every day. Remember, dealing with something is often the solution. If your child fails a test, the best thing he or she can do is handle it emotionally by recognizing they're in control of getting a better grade next time. What this means is that they learn how not to take their disappointment out on other people, to not beat themselves up, and to try again. And parents need to be concerned about self-esteem, but in a way that empowers them to teach their kids the skills they need.

So as a parent, how do you build this quality in kids? In my experience, kids develop self-esteem by doing things that are hard for them. To give you an example, when my son was young and he learned to tie his shoes, we were proud of him and praised him. But when he was eight and he tied his shoes, it was no longer a noteworthy event. When your child solves a problem that’s challenging and relevant to them now—and not just doing the same thing over and over again and being successful and getting praised for it—it builds self-esteem.

If you’re rewarding your kids for things that are artificial, understand this: those artificial rewards don’t build genuine self-esteem. At best, they build artificial self-esteem, which means your child feels better for a few minutes, but then goes downhill when the realistic challenges of his life surface. So if you’re still telling your child “nice job” for tying his shoe laces when he’s eight years old, that’s not going to accomplish anything. It may be a nice thing to do, because it's always important to give your kids encouragement as often as you can, but since tying his shoes isn't hard for him, that will not develop self-esteem. It won’t lead him to develop self-respect and it’s not going to help him solve the problem of feeling good about himself appropriately. If your goal is to show your child how he can build self-esteem—to learn how to manage problems and feel good about himself—that kind of praise is not going to get you there. You have to look at self-esteem through the framework of problem solving. Feeling good about yourself is a problem you have to solve. You solve it by learning how to do things better, not by talking about it and feeling better artificially.

If Your Child Has a Learning or Behavioral Disability: The Pitfalls of Special Ed.
Some special education programs falter with kids because the educators in those programs ask their students to do easy tasks in an attempt to make them feel better. And then they say, “Oh, great job,” and they give them A’s and 100’s on their work. But the fact is, your child knows what he’s doing is easy for him. Though he might get some momentary gratification, he doesn’t get any real self-esteem out of it. Your child might feel good about himself and come home and tell you, “Look Mom, I got an A.” But after that’s over, he doesn’t feel more confident about his ability to manage life or deal with his problems.

If your child has ADD or ADHD, dyslexia, or dyscalculia, or any label in that range of learning or behavioral disabilities, their perception very often becomes, “I don’t see the world the same way other people do.” Certainly that’s going to challenge their self-esteem, because they’re constantly going to see themselves as being a little off in social situations. As they grow older, that becomes pretty pervasive. Their sense is, “Uh oh, I’m different.” And kids interpret “different” as “stupid.” To them, “I’m different” means “I’m ugly.” “I’m different” means “I’m a loser, I’m an outsider.” Believe me, those are scary things for a kid. But the answer for children with disabilities is the same, in my mind. You may have to gauge tasks differently, but the main principle still applies—have your child tackle things that are challenging for him or her that will help their self-esteem grow. There’s a saying that I use: “If you want to develop self-esteem, do things that you can esteem. And if you want self-respect, you have to do things that you can respect.” And that’s true for everyone.

Counseling and Your Child’s Self-Esteem
The theory behind counseling that focuses on feelings is that if people feel better, they’ll think and behave better. But I’m afraid I haven’t found that to be the case in the 30 years I practiced. In fact, what I discovered was quite the opposite: when people behave better, they begin to feel better, they begin to be more successful and they start to think about themselves differently. Here’s what I've discovered: you can’t feel your way to better behavior, but you can behave your way to better feelings.

Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on helping your child express his feelings. Just know that it’s not going to help his problem-solving skill development, it’s not going to help his mastery of difficult tasks, and it’s not going to give him the means to produce self-esteem himself. Another saying I like is: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he can feed himself forever.” So, if you make your child feel good, he feels good for today, or for the moment. But if you show him what to do to feel good about himself, he can use those skills for the rest of his life.

Challenge the Thinking that Creates the Self-Esteem Problem
If you want to challenge a child who’s having behavioral issues and self-esteem problems, you have to confront the thinking they use to justify inappropriate behavior. So here’s what that would look like: Let’s say your child has an excuse for why he didn’t do his homework. As a parent, number one, you want to get him to complete his assignment. And number two, you want to let him know that giving you an excuse is not going to help; you want to challenge that kind of faulty belief.

Here’s how excuse-making breaks down in relation to self-esteem: Imagine that one child goes to school without his homework done, while another child has done the day’s assignment. The student who hasn’t finished his math homework feels bad—he’s angry, he’s frustrated. He watches the other kids hand in their work, and then the teacher says, “Where’s your homework, Ben?” She doesn’t listen to his excuses, she just gives him a poor grade. So Ben feels even worse. Later on that day when he sees a counselor, they talk about his homework problem with the goal of getting Ben to feel good, hoping that he’ll do the work if he feels better. When Ben walks out of the counselor’s office, he’s feeling OK, but within 30 minutes, when he fails to hand in his science homework, he’s frustrated and angry again. That night when he goes home, he hasn’t learned anything new, and the cycle starts over again.

But the child who completed his homework has every reason to feel good about himself. He’s mastered something; he’s on top of his responsibilities. And so that night when he goes home, he simply does his homework again. He may not understand how powerful his actions are, but in reality, he’s learning successful habits that breed self-esteem. Without a doubt, the more people learn how to be independent and do things independently, the higher their self-esteem is going to be, and the better they’re going to feel about themselves.

In fact, if you tested kids with solid self-esteem, you would find that they score high on independence and high on problem-solving skills. I believe that independence is one of the most important characteristics that a child can have, but parents don’t realize that, because no one tells them that truth. Many parents try to make their child like every other kid, when really, there are things they can be doing to help their child build independence. I believe this is one of the most important qualities a child can acquire in life.

How Can I Teach My Child the Skills They Need to Develop Self-Esteem?
If you have a child with low self-esteem or behavioral or social problems, you may have to actually develop a different set of parenting skills to help them. In the beginning of a child's life, parents often have an ideal of what they will be like. For example, they might think he’ll be a good athlete, be well-liked, and do well in school. Or that maybe he’ll misbehave from time to time, but that he'll learn from his mistakes when corrected. But when parents get a child who acts angry all the time, has low self-esteem, won’t deal with things in an appropriate way, and doesn't admit mistakes, they simply don’t know what to do. Often, they still try to parent the child they wish they had instead of learning how to parent the child they have.

Most parents I’ve dealt with are doing just that when I first meet them. I’ll tell you what I’ve told them: the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of kids out there with problems that need a broader range of skills and deeper insight than other kids do. It’s not that this is an impossible task, but it’s one that may well need direct and immediate action on your part

Next week, James Lehman MSW will discuss the three things you can do to help your child build self-esteem that will last a lifetime, in Part II of our series.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


This article was excellent and so perfectly timed for our sixth grade son who made straight A's the first nine weeks but is now starting to rush through homework and slack off with turning assignments in on time. Thank you for your emphasis on independence and problem-solving! We tell our children that our most important job as parents is to guide our children into becoming responsible, independent adults.

Comment By : Carrie

This is a very good article. I am looking forward to next weeks article to discuss the three things you can do to help with self esteem. Thank you!!!

Comment By : Kathy Brazzill

I'm waiting for part II, I think we are to a good start with this program, I haven't get the package on the mail yet, but this article was very helpful for me specially were it said, Quote: "they still try to parent the child they wish they had instead of learning how to parent the child they have." that's me right there.

Comment By : Iole

I wholeheartedly agree with everything here. I'm tired of being told that so-and-so behaves the way he or she behaves because he or she "has low self-esteem." You have to DO something to feel good about, before you have the RIGHT or REASON to feel good about yourself! I think we're suffering, as a culture, from too many folks who have overly HIGH -- in fact, INFLATED -- self-esteem. I see this in my own extended family, in the news, among my friends and their children.

Comment By : Toni Vitanza

I'd like to add...when I'm hanging around other parents, it's interesting to keep count of how many "Good jobs!" you hear. Everything the kid do, it's "Good job!" They slide down the slide at the park and giggle. "Good job!" Enough already! It helps me understand why the people I work with grouse because they're not praised enough by the boss. C' got a paycheck!

Comment By : Toni Vitanza

Excellent - love his analogy regarding homework. It is true, if we change our behavior then we feel better. I love you can give a man a fish and he can eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he will eat forever. that is my theory to raising my identical twin sons and judging by how they are today, ie., they are successful actors, musicians, have already earned an income; but I am a different parent. they are capable of being "A" students but they are "B"-"C" students and all I say is you are in control and if you want to do better all you have to do is add some effort. We put kids down today by calling them "under Acheivers" which affects their self-esteem. Not everyone has to go to Harvard. ok I am babling. Great article I am circulating it so people can join the website.

Comment By : iforgot

both my son and daughter have low self esteem. my son is 13 and my daughter is 14. they are terribly affected by peer pressure and always listen and do and think that what other children tell them is absolutely true. my children think that the adults around them do not know anything and that we are dum and stupid! i try to talk to them and tell them that they should not be believing everything that the other children say to them. they will not listen and are afraid that if they don't follow the crowd, they won't have any friends. this is a serious problem in our day in society. how do we get through to our children and conquer this problem?

Comment By : a very concerned and stressed out mother

This article is right on! As a secretary at a charter school, I often see parents doing the homework, making excuses for their kids, which frees the kids up to goof off and distract in class. They believe their self esteem lies in being the clown, rather than doing the work.

Comment By : Laurie

I asked my son once if he'd ever known of a case where a cop pulled somebody over to tell them what a great job they were doing driving. Nope. You're EXPECTED to follow the laws. Nobody hands out a medal when you do. I encourage those interested in this sort of thing to read "Punished by Rewards" by a man named Kohn.

Comment By : Toni Vitanza

In public school, the teachers thought my son was smart and not performing to his ability. Their answer was to let him turn in his homework for a reduced grade at the end of the grading period. My son is at Marine Military Academy for high school. He works hard for every privilege he receives. He has done an outstanding job and is flying up the Ranks. Talk about self esteem! He feels good about himself, his accomplishments and it shows! He tells us "I am a gifted leader."

Comment By : pastamom

your article was great, i did all the wrong things, never let my sons take responsibilty as children, always trying to protect them,they never learn how to master any children are 20 and 16, i dont know how i change the past.

Comment By : parent 52

I am a special education teacher with 25 years of experience. I have worked with a wide range of students; from those who have severe emotional problems to students with minor learning disabilities. These methods are sound. I wish every parent used the methods provided through this program. Dr. Lehman is providing a gift of common sense and a sound cognitive approach to all parents with this program.

Comment By : Kathy

My child excelled until high school,She applied to Ivy League colleges and did not get in,as her peers. She has gone into a tailspin and wasted her 4 years of college.Because of confidentiality laws, they would not let us speak to her professors/counsellors, with the result she started misrepresentaing her grades and skipped school for a whole year , without us knowing about it.Changed her address and gave us falsely printed grades. Ran up credit card bills .We have spent on counselling and sent her for dale Carnegie courses to build up her self esteem, to no avail.Tried tough love,but she does not work.HELP!!!

Comment By : Helpless parent !!!!!!!!!!

I think this article is great especially for special educators. The only problem is that the schools don't believe this. The only thing I can say is "be a parent". The school won't be there when your child is an adult...anyway!

Comment By : Education Teacher Agrees

Wonderful, helpful advice! As much as I was expecting this to shed some light on my one child in particular, it has opened a door to understanding why my HUSBAND behaves the way he does. I had a suspicion that he perhaps has low self-esteem. This has just confirmed that for me! THANK YOU.

Comment By : PRS

I couldn't agree more on everything mentioned in this salient article! We truly do behave our way into confidence and also through challenging events that test our limits. In young kids who might be shy, small steps such as having them greet the store clerk or waiter encourages their social skills with the outside world. Challenges we give to children that seem beyond them, indirectly tell them, "I believe in you" which gives them the courage to try, succeed and grow!

Comment By : Brenda

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Related keywords:

Low self esteem, Depression, Acting Out

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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