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Self-esteem is how we see and feel about ourselves. It is the degree to which we feel accepted and valued by people who are significant to us, as well as how we value ourselves. Self-esteem is developed within a person, as well as shaped by the people around us. The development of a high self-esteem and a positive sense of self are important to being independent, confident and resilient to challenges.

A child with high self-esteem accepts and feels proud of one’s achievements. A confident child will be more willing to try new activities or challenges and to learn from their experiences. Consequently, the child will learn to make good decisions and set goals as well as looks forward to a positive future. In contrast, children with low self-esteem tend to act in ways that confirm that they are ‘not good enough’ and it will take much effort to show them that they are better than what they perceived themselves to be.

The key to building your child’s self-esteem is to send clear messages to your child about her strengths and that she is loved unconditionally. Generally, you can help enhance your child's self-esteem by helping your child attain feelings of self-satisfaction through developing a sense of trust and connectedness, uniqueness, as well as achievement and control.

A sense of trust and connectedness

Refers to feelings that one can trust, rely and feel connected to significant people around us. Children need to be able to trust and depend on others (parents and adults) to learn to trust themselves. They also need a safe and supportive environment to explore and learn new things. Children also do better when parents and adults provide clear guidance and boundaries to teach them socially appropriate behaviours, how to cope with stresses and to problem solve.

What you can do:

  • Attend to their needs (food, comfort, love, shelter) to help them feel safe and secure.
  • Show affection to your child through hugging, talking, singing, laughing, playing and positive facial expressions so your child knows she is loved, wanted and valued.
  • Childproof the home, ensuring that it is safe for the child to explore by keeping items such as medications or detergents in a locked cupboard or out of reach from your child, especially a toddler.
  • Speak to your child using a gentle tone of voice because even infants are able to understand and react to emotions through listening to your tone of voice.
  • Praise your child by describing her behaviours clearly. For example, “Daddy likes it when you talk softly to your brother." Or “You should be proud of yourself for helping mummy put the dishes in the sink”.
  • Acknowledge your child’s efforts by praising your child for her efforts in trying new things or in attempting a task, even if your child did not perform well. We cannot ask for anything more than your child’s best efforts.
  • Use positive language when providing constructive criticism. Describe the behaviour (eg. “I prefer you to help clean up your room”) rather than label your child (eg. “You’re lazy”, “You’re a nuisance”).
  • Listen to your child and paraphrase what they are trying to express to you, rather than be dismissive or judgemental (e.g., “I hear you, you want ice-cream.”). Then, offer logical explanations or choices (two or three) to redirect your child. For example, “You are upset because you think you deserve an ice-cream”… ”It’s too late to buy ice-cream now. You can have milk or biscuits”.
  • Guide your child to make good decisions and provide them with clear reasons for rules and restrictions.

A sense of uniqueness

Refers to knowing that one has individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as personal opinions and contribution to the world around oneself. Children with good self-esteem and a sense of uniqueness have self-respect and enjoy being ‘themselves’.

What you can do:

  • Encourage your child to express ideas.
  • Allow your child to do things in her own way as much as possible and increase opportunities for your child to express herself creatively.
  • Avoid ridiculing or shaming your child when she does something unconventional or suggests a new idea.
  • Identify and acknowledge your child’s interests by spending quality time with your child doing the activity together or letting your child attend classes she expressed interest in.
  • Help your child find acceptable or appropriate ways to express herself. For instance, let your child know that if she wants to draw, then draw on paper, and not on the wall.
  • Tell your child you believe in her, and identify your child’s strengths.

A sense of achievement and control

Refers to knowing that one has skills, is able to make decisions in life and has adaptive skills to
cope with stressful situations. If your child believes that she is able to achieve their goals, that
she is likely to have a good sense of achievement and control.

What you can do:

  • Plan activities so that your child has plenty of opportunities to experience success.
  • When teaching new skills, break down the task, so he is more likely to learn each step gradually and successfully.
  • Give your child age-appropriate chores to help around the house and to be as independent as possible in daily self-help skills.
  • When planning activities for your child, offer choices. Some children may require clearer boundaries whereby parents offer two or three choices, rather than unrestricted choices.
  • Show your child how to solve various types problems effectively – social situations (sharing, turn-taking, negotiating, acceptance of others), learning new tasks (persistence, using trial-and-error to learn, asking for help), trying new activities.
  • Help your child review the decision she has made and its consequences or outcome. Guide your child to think about what she can do differently to enhance your child’s problem-solving skills.
  • Teach your child to be assertive and to communicate their thoughts and feelings appropriately, rather than to keep issues that are bothering them to themselves.
  • Help your child set reasonable and achievable goals.

Role modelling

Characteristics that reflect and enhance confidence is also helpful as children associate with significant people in their lives as role models. Confident children usually grow up among people who are confident themselves. Take time to nurture and support your child to develop into a confident individual

Contributed by:
Department of Child Development, KK Women's and Children's Hospital