Low Self-esteem in Kids Part II: 3 Ways to Help Your Child Now


When a child has low self-esteem, many parents search endlessly for ways to make them feel better about themselves. They compliment their child for minor accomplishments or lower the standards to make them feel better, and nothing changes. They want to fix the problem now, when in reality, they should be coaching their child on how they can overcome their issues on their own. In Part II of our series on Self-esteem and Kids, James Lehman, MSW explains the three key roles you can play to help your child develop genuine self-esteem.

Self-esteem is a very funny, and oftentimes elusive, quality. 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, that you respect yourself, and that you can ultimately accomplish what you set out to do. It’s easy for kids to get derailed in their thinking because they are meeting so many challenges on a daily basis.

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.

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.

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So the next question becomes, “What should my role be?” I’ve long taught parents about the three critical roles they should take on in order to help their children feel positively about themselves. They are: the “Teaching Role,” the “Coaching Role,” and the “Limit-Setting Role.” These roles help parents:

The Teaching Role

The Teaching Role is just what it sounds like—you actually teach your child how to solve problems. So when you see that your child isn’t feeling good about himself, one of the things you want to do immediately is help him figure out what’s causing that lack of self-worth. 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. And then find out what they need to do to address the problem. Are they late on an assignment, is someone picking on them at school, or did they do something they’re not proud of?

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 we’re angry or we’re sad or we’re frustrated, we put that to the side and do our job. That’s our task. And by the way, that’s another skill kids have to master in life, and it’s also another self-esteem builder.

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Here’s the deal: 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, he’s not going to be able to fix your car. Part of the teaching role is helping your child define the problem. So it’s learning what you do when somebody tells you “no.” For a child, that’s a problem. What do you do when you get an answer wrong in class and you feel dumb because of it? That feeling of low self-worth can also be looked at as a problem. Kids need to learn how to solve those problems and master the feelings that accompany them. If they can do that as they grow up, they’ll be able to solve bigger and bigger problems, which will in turn breed self-confidence.

The Coaching Role

The second step is to coach your child with the skills they already have, just like the coach of a sport 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 like, “You’ve solved this kind of problem before. You’ll solve it again.” “What did you do last time that worked for you then?” Or, “You’ve handled this kind of thing before, Sean, it’s going to be okay.” You might say, “Jessica, you’re doing okay with life. This is just another thing you have to deal with. This was hard for me too, at your age. But I really believe that you can do this. I’ve seen you do other hard things.” 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 he or she says, “It would be helpful for me if you left me alone,” you can respond with, “OK, but you know where I’ll be if you want to talk about this.” How will you know if your child really needs to talk about this problem? By their behavior and attitude. If kids refuse to talk about an issue but act out behaviorally or attitudinally, that behavior has to be challenged.

The Limit-Setting Role

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.” Or, “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 him to learn how to solve the problem that’s blocking him. 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 and may get stuck in the same “feel bad, take it out on others” cycle, which doesn’t solve their problem.

When Kids with Low Self-Esteem Act Out to Solve Their Problems

When kids don’t have appropriate limits placed upon them, the acting out behavior they’re using to solve their problems becomes a pattern. In fact, the way these kids learn how to have control and mastery over their lives is by acting out.

So misbehaving becomes their problem-solving skill, because when they’ve got a problem they can’t deal with, they misbehave and strike 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 you can. I don’t care if your child is on medication, I don’t care if he has a disability of some kind. If he doesn’t learn how to identify and solve the problem that’s confronting him, not only is the inappropriate behavior going to continue, but so will the low self-esteem. Believe me, this will have consequences during the course of your child’s entire life.

Realize that there is some place in an out-of-control child’s mind where they know this isn’t really right. They think they’re weird and they think they’re bad. When I say to a kid, “Well, you know, you get in trouble a lot but your brother doesn’t. Why do you think that is?” And they say, “Well, he’s a goody-goody. That’s why.” If you get right down to it, what that child is saying is that there’s something wrong with him, and he’s angry about it. And so the acting out masks that self-perception and makes him feel more in control.
Make no bones about it: for kids who act out to solve their problems, your role is the same: Teach, Coach and Set Limits.

By the way, you also need to accept the fact that your child is going to feel bad pretty frequently, that they are going to have bad days and good days. Don’t think you have to fix all of that—because you don’t and you can’t, even if you wanted to. It’s just that simple. Many parents get into useless conflicts with their kids because they’re trying to fix their child’s emotional state, instead of teaching their child how to deal with it themselves by coaching them through their problems and setting limits around their behavior.

The truth is that dealing with adversity of any kind develops self-esteem, whether it’s completing a difficult assignment, managing your emotions when you feel frustrated, or failing a test and being able to pick yourself up and try again. If you look around you, you’ll see adults who seem to do OK in life, and you may wonder what their secret is. Here’s the truth: it’s not that they don’t have any problems, it’s that they accept that problems are a part of life. Not only that, but they have a way of trying to manage and solve them that works. 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. Certainly they’ll feel better than someone who’s trying to make all the problems go away so they can relax—because all the problems are not going away. Feelings of self-esteem lead ultimately to peace of mind, or what we also call “serenity.”

And in the end, serenity comes from the acceptance of problems, not the absence of them.

  1. Teach their child how to identify the problem at hand.
  2. Guide their child as they learn how to solve their problems.
  3. Set limits on their child’s behavior, which ultimately shows kids how to be more independent as they develop.


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.

Comments (10)
  • Sara
    Many parents feel the burden of pushing their teenager to manage their responsibilities, and then worry that their teenager will fail college when parents aren’t there to manage them. You can encourage initiative and a sense of competence by offering just enough support for your child to complete a taskMore on their own. In addition, make a friendly environment for problem solving tasks. The development of the brain’s left hemisphere which is responsible for logical thinking takes place through counting combinations, whereas the development of the right hemisphere, which is responsible for creative thinking, occurs by arranging new plans and finding new non-standard moves in different positions. For this matter you can use chess and special diagrams, there are a lot of them to find over the internet.
  • mark
    Thank you for your very informative article! I think it is so important to spread knowledge about this topic in order to support our children in the best way possible. I think we should start to boost the self-esteem level at a young age and I like to think thatMore reading together with your child is a great way to start. With the knowledge our kids can learn from books they are able to make decisions more confidently.
  • Shirley
    THANK YOU FOR THIS INFORMATION !! This will help me and my daughter to help my grandson.
  • vicky
    I think my 8 yr old has low self esteem. She is always putting herself down etc. Recently she has been bullying her best friends and im very worried about her
  • fourthechildren
    I don't agree that  special ed makes your child do easy tasks. You should be ashamed of yourself
    • Sabrena81
      To be honest this is exactly what they do when a child isn't on target with their learning. For instance my daughter is a first grader she is struggling really bad with spelling, writing, blending words and her reading level is 3 levels below where it should be. So toMore help her and her low self esteem they have dropped her reading level. So instead of giving her books and assignments at the grave level she should be reading at they're giving them her a level below what she is actually reading and put her in a reading group that is also a level below what she can actually read their reasoning is that it makes her the STAR In this group and able to help the other kids which in return increases her self esteem. They also put her in a special spelling group the class geta one set of spelling words they get 18 words but my daughter gets a complete different set of words alot easier words and no more than 10. The books they send home are really easy my youngest daughter whom just started Kindergarten (also behind just not by much) is able to read them. I can go on with the things they give my daughter that are so much easier than what the other kids are doing myself I don't like it because 1. Shes not stupid she knows her assignments are different than the rest of the class even when the kids are writing sentences they give my daughter a different one than the class. 2. I don't like that they put all these kids in same class but are giving the ones struggling different assignments that should be done in a group or another class these kids know it's different and easier my daughter tells me so if she notices it id have to say others do to.
      • Sabrena81
        The assignments are just easier than what the rest of the class is doing but also easier than what she can do. She's able to do more than they're giving her, she has absolutely no challenge
  • HeatherMays
    My six year old has all of a sudden this summer decided she doesn't like her "tan skin" and her hair and doesn't like the way she looks. She is more Caucasian than her tiny bit of Native American and Latina, so she's white but tans beautifully. I don'tMore understand where the negativity is coming from and how to help her with her low self esteem. I've contemplated a dr but not sure if I should go there yet.
    • UsrX
      Sadly, it must be conversations she's head at school from people who don't even realize they are prejudice (kids and teachers alike). You should ask her some probing questions, but gently, such 'why don't you like your beautiful skin?' I tried pointing out to my own toddler daughter how boringMore it would be if we all had the same hair, eye and skin color, or worse, all look exactly the same! She could appreciate that perspective - that diversity is good, homogeneity is not as interesting.
  • Kelly
    Sharing a short film, The Pressure to be Perfect, which is a great conversation starter for teens: https://youtu.be/7rQskIdWU_U
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