Self-esteem – we hear those words all the time, but do we actually understand what self-esteem is? Self-esteem refers to a person’s overall sense of value or worth. It is the attitude we have towards ourselves. Various factors can affect our self-esteem over time, including genetics, personality, age, health and social circumstances.
How it develops with age
Self-esteem for children starts in infancy and continues to develop slowly over time. Healthy self-esteem usually develops because a child feels safe, loved, and accepted.
As babies develop into toddlers and young children, they start to explore activities by themselves using their newfound motor skills. Their self-esteem grows as parents give them attention and positive reinforcement, such as smiles or appropriate praise. Pre-schoolers learn self-esteem through developing a sense of trust, independence and initiative.
Starting school tends to be the critical time for a child’s self-esteem – they have to cope with adults and peers in new situations with unknown rules, and learn to adapt every step of the way. At this age, children derive self-esteem from their performance at school, learning tasks and doing sports.
As teenagers undergo physical and hormonal changes, their self-esteem can become fragile. Research suggests that teens who are used to setting age-appropriate goals in their lives tend to have higher self- esteem than those who aren’t.
What causes low self esteem?
Low self-esteem often begins in early childhood. We perceive positive and negative messages about ourselves from teachers, friends, siblings, parents, and even social media, and the negative messages can stay with us far longer than the positive ones.
Sometimes children find it difficult to live up to other people’s expectations of them. Stress and difficult life events can also have a negative impact on their self-esteem. Another important aspect to consider is individual personality; some children and adults are just more prone to negative thinking than others.
Why is it important to encourage positive self-esteem from a young age?
Young people with low self-esteem can find it very hard to cope with pressures in everyday life such as school, understanding peer relationships and society in general. Children and young people with low self-esteem are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviours and other mental health problems as they grow up, due to faulty coping mechanisms. Research also suggests that low self-esteem is linked to a wide range of difficulties, including poor academic achievement, criminal and violent behaviour, being a victim of bullying, teenage pregnancy, and substance abuse.
Some of the signs your child is struggling from low self-esteem
Every child and teenager will have low self-esteem at some point in their life but it’s important to recognise the red flags and intervene if/when appropriate.
Some common signs of low self-esteem in children and teens are as follows:
- People-pleasing behaviour
- Social withdrawal
- General feelings of not liking themselves
- Excessive preoccupation with personal problems
- Needing consistent external validation and approval
- Not making friends easily or having no friends
- Physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia or headaches
How parents can help
Parents can help in several ways to promote good self-esteem:
Take a step back. Let your child take healthy risks, make choices and solve problems, only stepping in to offer guidance and focus them when necessary.
Overpraising your children can do more harm than good. By overpraising, we are lowering the bar for our children. If you’re constantly telling them they are doing an amazing job, you’re saying they don’t need to push themselves. Self-esteem and confidence come from a willingness to try, try and try again. Appropriate praise is always good, but it should be specific and earned.
Let them help around the house. That means even when they are toddlers, ask them to help cooking, setting the table and making their beds.
Encourage them to pursue their interests – it doesn’t matter what the task is – it can be anything from swimming laps to beating levels on a video game. The point is for them to see a task through to the end so they feel that sense of accomplishment.
Make it clear that your love is unconditional. Let your child know that they are loved regardless of their failures or successes, while encouraging them to always try their best.
When to seek professional help
Sometimes a lack of self-esteem is too much for children to handle alone or with familial support, and parents may need to seek professional psychological help. Help may also be needed for adolescents whose lack of self-esteem is expressed in negative behaviours such as smoking, self-harm, alcohol abuse or criminal activity. If a child talks about or threatens suicide, professional help should be sought immediately.
Written by Kim Henderson, psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center. Kim is a UK trained psychologist, specialised in working with children and young adults. During her university education she volunteered as a psychologist for ChildLine and later went onto to work at Manchester Children’s Hospital in the Oncology department.