How to Build Self-esteem in Children and Teens

How to Build Self-esteem in Children and Teens

Something I’ve learned as a therapist and a mom is that you cannot  “fix”  your child’s self-esteem as a parent—though many of us make ourselves  crazy  trying to do just that. It’s hard to see our kids acting out and giving up  because of  insecurities or poor feelings of self-worth, so we wrack our brains   trying to find ways to motivate them and make them feel better. Unfortunately,  self-esteem just doesn’t work that way. Here’s the truth: Kids can’t feel their  way to  better behavior, but they can behave their way to better feelings  eventually.

“Kids  can’t feel their way to better behavior, but they can behave their way to better  feelings eventually.”


What does this mean? In my experience, kids develop self-esteem by  doing  things that are difficult or challenging for them. To give you an  example, when  your child was young and learned to walk, you were probably proud  of them and  praised them for it. But now that they’re older, it’s no longer something  you  probably applaud them for. The point is, you want to compliment your child  on things that are difficult for them to do. When your child solves a  problem that’s challenging and relevant to  them now, it builds  self-esteem.

Related:  Acting out child taking out his or  frustrations on everyone else?

In our culture today, it can sometimes seem like kids get handed  trophies  and awards left and right for almost anything. But when kids are  rewarded for  things that aren’t really difficult for them, it doesn’t affect  their sense of  self-worth because those artificial rewards don’t build genuine  self-esteem. At  best, your child will feel better for a few minutes. Of course,  it’s important  to give our kids genuine encouragement as often as we can, as  long as the  praise is merited and isn’t for something they’ve been doing with  ease for  years, like tying their shoes. Think about it this way: if your boss  told you  “nice work” for printing something out on your computer or pounding in  a nail,  would you value that praise? If you’ve been an office worker or a  carpenter for  more than a few days, probably not!

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 or fleetingly. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with  focusing on  helping your child express his or her feelings. Just know that it’s  not going  to help them with their problem-solving skill development, their  mastery of  difficult tasks, and won’t give them the means to produce  self-esteem. In other  words, if you make your child feel good, he will feel  good 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 she didn’t do what the boss asked at her part-time  job. As a  parent, you want her to respect authority and follow through on her   responsibilities. You also want to let her know that giving an excuse is not   going to help; you want to challenge that kind  of faulty belief.

If you let it slide or allow her to do a poor job, she won’t learn  anything  about having a good work ethic or being responsible. On the other  hand, a teen  who completed her tasks at work has every reason to feel good about  herself.  She’s on top of her responsibilities, and possibly gets rewarded for  her  efforts. The next day, she simply goes to work again. She may not  understand  how powerful her actions are, but in reality, she’s learning  successful habits  that breed self-esteem. The more your child learns how to be  independent and do  things independently, the higher her self-esteem is going to  be, and the better  she’s going to feel—she’s “behaved her way to better  feelings.”

Related: The keys to better behavior,  explained.

Promoting Positive Self-esteem: Setting Expectations

Kids  need parents to be consistent and solid – to be their rock and  follow-through  with expectations. Kids feel safer when parents are clear and  matter of  fact. This objective lens can help you put your child’s negative  emotions into  perspective. When emotions get in the way of following through on  responsibilities or expectations, it’s up to us as parents to focus on the   behavior at hand. Then when your child does what he needs to do, you can be   encouraging, reinforcing the positive behavior rather than the negative   feelings and excuses that might have gotten in the way.

We all  love positive reinforcement—we like to hear that we’re doing a great  job, and  our kids do too. Parents often get pulled into the emotionality of  what’s going  on with our children, especially when the child’s self-esteem is  shaky. But if you  have a child who doesn’t feel good about himself to begin  with, focusing on  positive behavior—and making sure he is held accountable when  he misbehaves—is  even more important.

For  example, your teen comes home from her sporting event and has just been  cut  from the “A” team and relegated to the “B” team. She’s so upset that she  states  she “Can’t clean her room and do her laundry.” You feel terrible for  her, but  know that having a messy room full of dirty clothes isn’t going to  help her  feel any better about the situation. Instead you gently remind her of  her  expectations, offer a little help getting started, leave her to the task  and  then let her know what a great job she’s done when the room is clean and  the  laundry is done.  It’s not going to help  her get back on the team,  but it’s going to give her some positive  accomplishment in an otherwise unhappy  day.

Not  focusing on feelings can be difficult for parents, and can initially  seem  overwhelming, awkward, and like we’re being callous about our kids’  emotions, as  if we don’t care. But think of it this way: if you were to just  focus on your  kid’s feelings all the time and not their behavior, how would  they learn to  solve their problems in life? A change in behavior can clear the  air and keep  everyone from wallowing in negative feelings.

Understand  that you can listen to your child and hear what they have to say,  but then you  need to remind them of the behaviors you expect. They may feel  awful about what  their friend said about them today, but they still have to do  their chores and  not be rude or mean to their siblings. In other words, feeling  bad doesn’t  remove us from our responsibilities. After all, even if your car  breaks down on  the way to work, you have to deal with it, rearrange your work  day, and get the  car fixed and your work done. It feels bad, but you deal with  it and move on.

Related: How to give your child  consequences that  work.

Bad situations and real feelings

There  are times when bad things happen to our kids and their negative  emotions are  very real. An example of this is when a child falls out with a  good friend. As  a parent of course you’re going to feel your child’s sadness,  and the situation  can be painful for everyone. But this is also a time when  it’s especially  important to remember that it’s your job to help your child  find some way to  problem solve, learn new strategies, and employ those  strategies.

When we  feel sorry for our kids, it’s more difficult to follow-through with   consequences, but don’t let this become an excuse for them. Instead, think   about the big picture—you want to keep your child’s life as consistent as   possible, and help them look outside their problems and keep moving in a   positive direction. Over-empathizing and letting them off the hook whenever   they’re sad, angry or upset won’t accomplish this; in fact, in can often have   the opposite effect.

Here’s  a parenting truth: Sometimes our kids just need to feel bad, and we  need to let  them feel that way without trying to “fix it.” Having a hard day  doesn’t stop  the world or give your child the right to treat others badly. They  still need  to be held accountable for their behavior, but in the long run, this  is going  to help their self-esteem building. The end result is that your child  will learn appropriate ways of acting when life is difficult.


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