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


Teenage girl resting her chin on her hands

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.

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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.

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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.


James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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