Supporting Your Child’s Self-Esteem Throughout Their Lifetime

Self-esteem is the way we think and feel about ourselves and our abilities. It is the opinion we have about ourselves – it is not related to other people’s view of us. A healthy level of self-esteem is beneficial in childhood and throughout life. It allows us to look at life positively, believe in ourselves, and feel proud of what we can do. If you have low self-esteem, you might not feel as confident, and you may think less positively about yourself.

Babies are not born with self-esteem. It is something that develops throughout life, and is shaped by individual experience. Several things can influence self-esteem: genetics, relationships, friendships, personality traits, life changes, successes and failures, peer pressure, and school work. Self-esteem begins when an infant feels safe, accepted, and loved. It is crucial for infants to build a positive self-image and subsequent self-esteem.  It helps growth by promoting good relationships and boosting ambitions. Infants learn about self-esteem by observing how others react to them.

As children grow older and go to school, they enter a time that impacts greatly how they feel about themselves. Things that can make children have lower self-esteem include not doing well in school, being treated badly by peers, and getting too much negative feedback. When children have low self-esteem; they might feel like they are not as good as others, be hard on themselves, lack confidence, talk negatively about themselves, and be more influenced by what their friends do. On the other hand, children with high self-esteem are usually more confident in social situations, know their strengths and weaknesses, and can bounce back from challenges. As children develop, so too does their self-esteem when they are involved in activities they enjoy, are making friends, learning in school, and reaching their goals.

In early adolescence, self-esteem can be challenged due to numerous changes and transitions.  A drop in self-esteem during adolescence can be common and can be linked to feelings of worry, sadness, and not doing well in school.  Hormonal changes of puberty can also have an impact.   Supporting young people with their self-esteem during this period is important is important for their confidence, mental health and ongoing learning.

The relationship between parents and children is crucial for building good self-esteem. As parents or caregivers, we aim to be a safe and welcoming place for our children.  We want them to feel accepted, share their thoughts openly, and find comfort through talking openly with us. When parents show love, accept their children, and listen to them, it makes children feel safe and valued. This helps children believe in themselves and feel more confident, and develop a good opinion of themselves. ‘Being with’ your child when they’re going through strong emotions helps them understand and express their feelings. Children learn about themselves and the world by watching and experiencing things, particularly how their caregivers act. When children see adults talking positively to themselves and about themselves, it helps them learn to do the same, have positive thoughts about themselves, and in turn develop their own levels of healthy self-esteem.

This article was written Emily Higgins, Psychology Assistant with HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Service. The HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Service is a member of Parenting Limerick.


Tips to Develop Self-Esteem in Children & Adolescents

Babies & Toddlers (0-2 years):

  • Play and Explore
  • Play with your baby and allow them explore safe areas – encourage their curiosity and build confidence.
  • Let your baby explore and try things on their own (e.g. choosing their toy). It shows them they can do things by themselves and builds independence.
  • Model Positive Behaviour
  • Babies learn from caregivers. Smile, talk, and make eye contact with your baby to help them feel positive.
  • Use words that make your baby feel good. Instead of saying “no,” try gently redirecting behaviour.

Childhood (3-12 years):

  • ‘Being With’: Co-Regulation
  • ‘Being with’ is staying with your child in their feelings; not downplaying them.
  • Naming emotions; for example, ‘I see you’re feeling upset…’
  • Soothe your child and help them calm down.
  • Model Healthy Behaviour
  • Children learn from how you treat yourself. Show your child that you talk positively to yourself and have a healthy attitude about yourself.
  • Show your child you have compassion towards yourself and you can learn from mistakes.
  • Social Media
  • Demonstrate healthy, structured social media use to your child.
  • Set internet guidelines and boundaries; for example, ‘no screentime after 8pm’.
  • Open communication about internet use with active monitoring.

Adolescence (13-18 years):

  • Teach Resilience and Independence
  • Help them learn from failures and develop resilience.
  • Allow them to make age-appropriate decisions and take on responsibilities.
  • Model Healthy Behaviour
  • Encourage healthy habits, both physically and mentally.
  • Teach them to set and respect personal boundaries.
  • Encourage them to express themselves openly, and feel proud of who they are. Celebrate their individuality.