As a parent, you have probably heard a lot about the importance of children having high self-esteem; and there is no doubt that you want your child to grow up feeling good about himself, no matter what happens in life. A critical part of supporting your child in developing healthy self-esteem is to become an observant parent—understanding the difference between when your child is in a funk (which is a normal part of growing up) and when something deeper is going on.
So, how can you tell if your child has low self-esteem? Here are three important clues:
Your child frequently engages in negative self-talk. Self-talk is all about the thoughts and words that we say to ourselves about ourselves. While positive self-talk (“I can do this,” “I’m smart,” etc.) is uplifting and makes us feel good about ourselves, negative self-talk (“I can’t do this,” “I don’t like how I look,” etc.) does the opposite by making us feel down about ourselves. Sometimes, negative self-talk occurs when children compare themselves to others and decide that they are “not as good as” someone else, instead of recognizing their own special qualities and talents.
When you notice your child using negative self-talk, encourage her to turn these disempowering statements around in order to feel better about herself. Help her identify what she is good at and what makes her unique. Model what positive self-talk sounds like.
Your child fears rejection from others. There are different ways that children demonstrate fear of rejection. They may go out of their way to please people, doing whatever they can to avoid rejection (over-apologizing, playing “small,” avoiding speaking up, etc.). Some children may completely shy away from others, take a long time to warm up, or only interact with people with whom they feel really comfortable. This fear of rejection becomes pervasive: the child becomes fearful about taking risks, asserting themselves, and disappointing others. They see themselves as “flawed” and as “not enough.” And children who have experienced rejection know how devastating it feels, which makes it even more challenging to take the risk of trying to make friends for fear that rejection may happen again.
To help overcome this, look for opportunities to acknowledge what is special about your child. Encourage him to see the value in stretching his “courage and confidence muscles” by taking the risk to create healthy friendships. It can be helpful to have your child talk about some of the qualities that he is looking for in a friend (caring, kind, thoughtful) so that you both can begin noticing which children demonstrate these qualities. This may help your child feel more confident connecting with and befriending kids that have those qualities.
Your child takes almost everything personally. Feedback, even when positive, can make some children feel critical of themselves; they see all feedback as a highlight of their flaws and take it very personally. These children might cry easily, replay the feedback in their minds over and over, and have a difficult time “letting go” and moving on. This may lead to a focus on perfection rather than a focus on learning from experiences.
You can help your child by explaining the difference between negative and positive feedback: negative feedback isn’t meant to encourage growth and improvement, while positive feedback comes with “clues” to help the person do better next time. During a calm time, provide examples of what negative and positive feedback look and feel like so that your child can better understand the difference between them. If your child is upset about what someone said to her, refer back to the differences between negative and positive feedback to help her decide how she feels about the situation and how to move forward. Children can be encouraged to use the phrase, “I feel (sad, frustrated, etc.) when you say____” as a way of communicating their feelings and coping with negative feedback. If positive feedback doesn’t feel so positive when your child receives it, help your child identify the things she has done well and encourage her to identify things that she could improve upon. This may help your child see the positive feedback in a better light: as helpful suggestions rather than criticisms or personal attacks.
Observing how your child speaks to and about themselves, interacts with others, and responds to feedback are great ways for you to begin to assess their level of self-esteem. If you feel that low self-esteem is a challenge for your child, consider implementing some of the strategies shared in this article. With your support and guidance, it is possible for your child to develop a healthy level of self-esteem.