Kids and Self-Esteem: How to Help Them Grow a Thicker Skin

Posted March 25, 2011 by

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How do we teach our kids to develop some tough skin to weather the never-ending schoolyard gossip and drama?

It starts so young these days — much earlier than I remember. Our kids come home fragile and in tears, basing their happiness on these fickle, yet pivotal interactions. I see it more with my girls. (My boys are perhaps still too immature to care, although I believe boys and girls are wired differently.)

It’s inescapable and part of the process of maturation — at least it is in our culture as well as in Latin America, where we lived many years. Private schools, religious schools, charter schools, A-rated, B-rated — it’s all the same. Kids are kids. Many root their self-esteem in how they measure up against their peers.  And deep insecurity, or rather, underdeveloped self-confidence compels them to berate one another to bolster their own social status.

It’s heart-wrenching for us parents who have to witness this from the sidelines. Yet the more we fight our children’s battles and try to intervene, the more we hamper the growth of their self-esteem and independence, in the long run. The answer? We must learn how to refrain, unless it’s a matter of safety or health.

I remember going through this myself. It was a living nightmare and at age 10, I went from a straight-A student to barely passing from one semester to the next.  One day my mother came to school, marching right into the cafeteria during lunchtime, and attempted to take on the entire clique of mean girls. My face turned crimson and hot as she angrily accused them all, one by one, of ganging up on her daughter. I was mortified.

In fact, after that incident, it got so bad that my parents accompanied me one night to the private home of the County Superintendent. They begged him to allow me to attend another school, one out of our designated district. We were denied. I wanted to disappear.

It was the best thing that could have ever happened. Yet, I didn’t know it at the time.

I was forced to adapt, to mature.

To survive socially, I implemented new strategies. I proactively sought out the “other” kids — the quieter, loyal and less-popular bunch. They embraced me wholeheartedly and didn’t ask many questions. These girls became my true friends and I learned invaluable lessons that I try to impart upon my kids today.

Each night before bed, I coax my girls into venting about all the stressful interactions that ultimately define whether their day was a success or a failure. I persuade them to articulate their feelings. Much of their frustrations are locked away and only once home, and feeling safe, can they release it all. Sometimes they write it down. Regardless, I listen and nod my head. Once they finish regurgitating all the painful memories, I put on my “motivational speaker hat” and give them a serious pep talk. Night after night. And each morning I do it again as they leave for school.

Yes, I want them to be kind and recognize the emotional damage caused by vicious gossip. Moreover, I want them to develop rock-solid self-esteem that enables them to see through the insults — right into the heart of the frightened, insecure child that utters them.

“Perhaps this kid’s parents don’t love them enough,” I reason, “Or encourage them enough, or believe in them.”

I want my kids to feel compassion for the mean kids. Because then, they’ll grow impermeable to such hurtful attacks; they’ll remain stoic and unfrazzled.

Because it doesn’t end when the bell rings or at graduation. Unfortunately.

That’s why I want them to be TOUGH.

“You are a leader. You are a winner. Put up that invisible wall and be courteous, but keep the conversation light. Don’t allow their words to penetrate your heart.”

“Trust me,” I assure them. “Many of today’s so-called popular, bad-mouthing kids will have a hard time in life later on. The good-natured children, the ones that stay neutral and loyal, will become your future community leaders.”

With a combination of love, straight-talk, and role-playing, they get it.

And, as their mom, I endeavor to model positive behavior coupled with a strong character.

For parents, our workshop is our home and that is where we must support, coach and train our kids. And because kids learn what they see in the home, I know their chances of evolving into mindful, self-confident adults are that much greater.


Darah Zeledon aka The Warrior Mom is a wife, mom of 5, writer, fitness buff and thinker. Her unique voice reveals an experiential and academic knowledge of the social sciences—particularly psychology and sociology. Her empowering messages are born from an appreciation and passion for life and a nonstop quest for truth, reflecting a wisdom and resiliency earned by an array of challenging life experiences. Despite it all, Darah’s personal favorites are the quirky anecdotes exposing the chaotic tug-of-war between motherhood and personal passions. She’s currently working on her memoir—a tragic, yet inspiring story of the last five years of her life entitled: A Lucky Girl. You can read more of her musings at:

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  1. Trivedi Effect Report

    If you want to know how to improve self confidence keep reading. Having self confidence is an essential component when it comes to succeeding in anything you wish to accomplish. Without having self confidence, you may never take the first step toward your goals. Try to remember things in the past that you have accomplished. Start thinking positive, instead of focusing on the negative. When you start acting like you are confident you will start building your self confidence.
    improve your self confidence, and they are:
        – Have clear goals,
        – Find a mentor,
        – Associate with positive people,
        – Pay attention to how you look,
        – Don’t fear failure, etc.

  2. pl70 Report

    I have just gone through a similar experience with my 9 year. While generally confident, happy and well rounded, she is also sensitive being an only child. She gets very upset when other kids stick their tongues at her, make faces or say unkind things. Like you, my instinct was to get her to share her feelings and experiences with me, to try empathise with other children and to realise that children are at different stages of maturity. At the same time,I gently let her see that her actions may also get a reaction but that if the actions of others are unjustified, she has every right to stand up for herself and let them know that their actions are unacceptable. While I teach my child to not deliberately hurt others, I would like instil that she also deserves to be treated with the same respect she gives. I can only hope Im doing the right thing. Time will tell.

  3. kls7101 Report

    I loved this!! I’m having a really hard time watching my daughter have to deal with some of this stuff. I feel more positive now that I can do and say the right things to help her overcome dealing with these issues.

  4. Shell2u Report

    Your article is both interesting and informative however, you must also teach your children when to let their guard down before they become hardcore mistrusting adults with no friends.

  5. Vidhya Report

    How to improve Self-confidence to kids?
    Confidence is such an essential quality in successful life. Sometimes when kids are doing something like creativeness, if they failure to complete their work they are lacking self-confidence.

    When they loosing their confidence don’t blame or compare to other kids instead encourage, speak positive response and discuss with them, Such as Great work! you have reached your goal. keep trying etc.. it will be uses to improving their greater confidence.

  6. AFlores Report

    Wow! What a gift you are giving to your children to sit with them each night, connect with their thoughts and feelings, and make your home a safe, loving, and supportive place. You have set the stage to teach your children your own values. From reading your blog I am guessing that you value both resilience and compassion, and you believe that these qualities will help your children live happy, successful lives. I’m also a mother trying to nurture the development of resilient, compassionate human beings. I’d like to offer a different way of helping our children cope with the cruel behavior of others-with empathy. Empathy for our children who may feel hurt, scared, or confused by such painful behavior. Empathy for the child that used the painful behavior as a strategy to meet a basic need for belonging, community, or even understanding (We should be careful not to simplify the motives of another person to “deep insecurity” or “underdeveloped self-confidence”, such labels don’t help us connect with one another, and they may actually get in the way of being able to see the other in all their human complexity). And, most importantly, empathy for ourselves, we who may be pained by unhealed emotional traumas from our own childhoods. Empathy-understanding another’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, being able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes-makes the difference between offering a pep-talk about the bully’s own bleak future and acknowledging that your own child felt hurt. Putting up a wall to not feel insults might actually harm a child’s ability to feel and understand his or her own feelings, might even impede his or her ability to see and act towards others with compassion. There is also a comforting correlation between empathy and resiliency. Children who feel understood by and connected to at least one caring, loving adult are in fact more resilient than those who don’t feel understood by the adults in their lives. After all, the only behavior we can control is our own, and you’re right, that bully-like behavior and vicious gossip can be emotionally damaging. That’s why your nighttime routine can be so validating and healing to your children, resulting in higher self-esteem, resiliency, and compassion for others. Talk about their pain, celebrate their joy, and allow those insults to penetrate their precious hearts, so that they can make sense of what they’re feeling and why, and ultimately find comfort in the unconditional love and support of their number one cheerleader and coach- you. I offer this comment with an open heart and thank you for writing about such an important topic.

  7. Kim Report

    Love it! Very wise and encouraging advice. It’s very hard to watch this sort of stuff happen to our kids. I just wrote an article similar to this (about friends).



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