Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-respect are interchangeable phrases we use to identify our kids’ confidence in their ability to handle life’s problems. I think of it as the feeling that things are going to work out all right, that you can manage the bumps in the road, and that you respect yourself.
Each time a child faces a new problem, their self-esteem—their confidence in solving this new problem—is put to the test. For children, their lack of experience means they are confronted with new problems and opportunities every day. As a result, their self-esteems—their sense of “I can handle it”—is continually being put to the test.
If your child can deal with these problems, their sense of self-esteem grows. If they can’t, their self-esteem diminishes and doesn’t develop the way it should.
Simply put, self-esteem comes from being able to operate out of one’s comfort zone. Without a doubt, the more people learn how to be independent and do things independently, the higher their self-esteem will be, and the better they’re going to feel about themselves.
One of the critical truths you need to know about your child’s self-esteem is that you can’t fix it yourself. You’ll go crazy, you’ll drive your kid crazy, and you won’t make them feel better.
The best way for children to develop self-esteem is to persevere outside of their comfort zone. A child’s self-esteem cannot come from you.
Instead, you need to provide your child with the tools they need and support them as they learn how to solve problems on their own. And make no bones about it: in this world, 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 they can do is handle it emotionally by recognizing they’re in control of getting a better grade next time. This means they learn how not to take their disappointment out on other people, not beat themselves up, and to try again. Parents need to be concerned about self-esteem, but in a way that empowers them to teach their kids the skills they need.
The whole idea of life is to get to a point with your emotions where you can experience them but also put them in their proper place while you do the things you have to do. So if we go to work and are angry, sad, or frustrated, we put that to the side and do our job. That’s our task.
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, worthy of esteem, and challenging for them.
In other words, when your child solves a challenging and relevant problem, they feel good about themselves, and their self-esteem improves.
To give you an example, when my son was a toddler, and he learned to tie his shoes, we were proud of him and praised him. Tying his shoes was an accomplishment for him at that age.
But when my son was eight, tying his shoes was no longer a noteworthy event. Praising your child for tying his shoes when they’re eight years old is artificial praise. And artificial praise doesn’t build genuine self-esteem.
At best, artificial praise makes your child feels better for a few minutes, but they’ve been there and done that. And when unfamiliar challenges occur, they lack the confidence to tackle these new problems.
So if you’re still telling your child “nice job” for tying their shoes when they’re eight years old, that’s not going to accomplish anything. It may be a nice thing to do, but know that praising your child for menial tasks will not build their self-esteem.
Instead, 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.
I’ve found that some special education programs deal with kids’ esteem by assigning easy tasks to make them feel better. The educators praise the kids and give them A’s and 100’s on their work.
But the child knows what they’re doing is easy for them. They might get some momentary gratification, but they don’t get any genuine self-esteem out of it. Your child might feel good about themselves and come home and tell you, “Look, Mom, I got an A.” But after that, they don’t feel any more confident in their ability to manage life or deal with their problems.
Children with ADD or ADHD or any learning or behavioral disability often have the perception that they don’t see the world the same way other people do. Indeed, that will challenge their self-esteem because they’re always going to see themselves as being a little off in social situations.
As they grow older, that perception 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 solution for children with disabilities is the same, in my mind. Though you may have to gauge tasks differently, the main principle still applies: have your child tackle challenging things 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.
The theory behind much of counseling is that if we feel better, we’ll think and behave better. That’s why the focus of many child counselors is to get kids to feel better.
But in my 30 years of practicing, I found that the opposite is true. When people start to behave better, they begin to feel better, they begin to be more successful, and they begin to think about themselves differently. I’ve discovered that 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 their feelings. But feelings and behavior affect each other in a cycle. If your child behaves poorly, they’ll feel bad, and if they feel bad, they act out.
If you want your child to feel good, improving their behavior is the easiest way to do it. Teaching your child how to be disciplined and solve their problems gives them the means to produce self-esteem themselves.
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 for a lifetime.” Likewise, if you make your child feel good, they feel good for today or the moment. But if you show them what to do to feel good about themselves, they can use those skills for the rest of their life.
If you want to help a child with low self-esteem and acts out, you have to confront the thinking they use to justify inappropriate behavior. So here’s what that would look like.
Let’s say your son 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 will not 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 math 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 now Ben feels even worse. Later 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 okay. But within 30 minutes, when he fails to hand in his science homework, he’s frustrated and angry again. 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 when he goes home, he does his homework again. He may not understand how powerful his actions are, but 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 will be, and the better they’re going to feel about themselves.
I believe that independence is one of the most important characteristics that a child can have. 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.
But not all parents realize that because no one tells them that truth. Independence is one of the most important qualities a child can acquire in life, and parents should be helping build that independence.
If you have a child with low self-esteem or behavioral or social problems, you may have to develop a different set of parenting skills from what you’ve been using.
At the beginning of a child’s life, parents often have an ideal of what they will be like. For example, they might think they’ll be a good athlete, be well-liked, and do well in school. The parents understand that their child may misbehave from time to time, but they expect their child to be responsible.
But when the child doesn’t turn out that way, many parents still try to parent the child they wish they had instead of parenting the child they have.
If your child has low self-esteem, it’s not about what you can say as a parent. The truth is, you can’t say any one thing to make their situation better. Instead, you have to have an organized approach to how you’re going to help your child manage their lack of self-worth—because this is a problem they need to solve in life, just like coming home on time and meeting basic responsibilities.
So the next question becomes, “What should my role be?” I’ve long taught parents about the three critical roles they should play to help their children feel positive about themselves. They are the teaching role, the coaching role, and the limit-setting role.
The teaching role is just what it sounds like—you teach your child how to solve problems. So when you see that your child isn’t feeling good about themselves, the first step is to help them figure out what’s causing that lack of self-worth. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t identify it accurately. If your carburetor’s broken and the mechanic says it’s a piston, they’re not going to be able to fix your car.
The first step in the teaching role is to help your child define the problem. You’re not looking for an answer like, “I had a tough time when I was three.” You want to find out what’s going on now, what happened today. Are they late on an assignment? Is someone picking on them at school? Or did they do something they’re ashamed of? Then you should find out what they need to do to address the problem.
The second step is to help your child figure out how to solve that problem. For example, it’s teaching your child what you do when somebody tells you “no.” Or what to do when you give a wrong answer in class, and you feel dumb because of it.
These are common problems for kids. The feeling of low self-worth is a problem itself. Kids need to learn how to solve those problems and master the emotions that accompany them. If they can do that as they grow up, they’ll solve bigger and bigger problems, which will build self-confidence even more.
The coaching role involves coaching your child with the skills they already have, just like a football coach would do.
For example, if your child is going through a difficult time or learning a new task that’s proving to be a challenge for them, try coaching them by saying things such as the following:
“You’ve solved this kind of problem before. You’ll solve it again.”
“What did you do last time that worked for you then?”
And of course, one of the most important things you can ever ask your child:
“How can I be of help? What would you find helpful from me right now?”
That statement gives a child a sense of control. And if they say, “It would be helpful for me if you left me alone,” you can respond with,
“Okay, but you know where I’ll be if you want to talk about this.”
If your child doesn’t ask for help, how will you know if your child needs to talk about this problem? By their behavior and attitude. If kids refuse to talk about an issue but act out, that behavior has to be challenged, and the issue needs to be addressed.
Setting limits is one of the most important roles of a parent. The limits for your child should be very clear, even when they’re having self-esteem issues. So you can say:
“I’m sorry if you’re sad or frustrated or don’t feel good about yourself right now, but we’re not going to lose sight of the fact that you have to do your homework. That’s your job.”
“I’m sorry you’re feeling that way, but you can’t take out your anger and frustration on your sister.”
Give your child appropriate consequences, but work with them to learn how to solve the problem that’s blocking them.
The sad fact is many kids who don’t have appropriate limits set around their behavior act out and take out their low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness on others. Without limits and consequences—without that balance of responsibility and accountability—kids may never feel compelled to change. As a result, they get stuck taking their feelings out on others, which doesn’t solve their problem.
Without limits and consequences, misbehaving becomes their problem-solving strategy. In other words, they deal with their problems by misbehaving and striking out at others.
Yes, kids with low self-esteem feel difficult feelings—but so does everybody else, all the time. As a parent, your job is to teach them how to deal with their emotions as best as you can.
For the child who acts out, a key goal has to be acceptable behavior no matter how they feel and no matter whether they are on medication or have a disability of some kind. If they don’t learn how to identify and solve problems effectively, the inappropriate behavior will continue and will have consequences throughout their lives.
If you look around you, you’ll see adults who seem to do okay in life, and you may wonder what their secret is. Here’s the truth: they still have plenty of problems, but they accept that problems are a part of life.
They also have a way of trying to manage and solve problems that work. If you can teach your child to accept that life has problems and show them ways to deal with those problems, they’ll have a lot more peace of mind and self-esteem.
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.