What is self-esteem?
According to a study by Hosogi et. al, self-esteem is, “the feeling of self-appreciation and is an indispensable emotion for people to adapt to society and live their lives”. Self-esteem can be positive or negative based on how someone feels about themselves. And building self-esteem in toddlers can go a long way in establishing a positive self-concept from early on in life.
Self-esteem is how a child evaluates their self-worth. It is a characteristic that changes over time but starts early on. Self-esteem is affected by both internal feelings and interactions with others. (Early on in life, the biggest contributor to self-esteem is a child’s parents).
Self-esteem can be broken down into specific domains, like how good a child thinks they are at one specific task. However, it is more often thought of as an overall assessment across tasks.
When do children begin to develop self-esteem?
Self-esteem begins almost as soon as your little one is born. As a baby, positive self-esteem comes from simple things like feeling safe, happy, and attended to. As toddlers become more aware of others, their self-esteem is impacted by how parents respond to them, their own independence, and more.
Children first develop self-esteem related to specific parts of their lives, like how well they get along with other kids. By middle childhood, children develop more holistic self-esteem. Once they are teenagers their self-esteem depends more on things like romantic appeal and job competence.
Check out the article “Changing Self-Esteem in Children and Adolescents” for more information on self-esteem in children.
Why does self-esteem matter?
Self-esteem is related to academic success, social competence, and mental health. When children have low self-esteem they are more likely to struggle in school and have difficulty connecting with peers. Additionally, children with low self-esteem are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Check out the article “Low Self-Esteem and Its Association with Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation” for more information.
As parents and caregivers, we need to be especially aware of how we impact our children’s self-esteem. Children can pick up on how their caregivers feel about them, and this directly affects how they feel about themselves. So being an attentive, positive, nurturing parent will increase your child’s self-esteem. On the flip side, if you are unresponsive, negative, and absent your child will more likely have negative self-esteem.
What are the best ways for building self-esteem in toddlers?
1. Increase their independence.
Let’s be honest, babies are pretty darn helpless little creatures. They are cute, but they can do very little for themselves. But as babies grow into toddlers, you must let them try more tasks on their own. Children increase their self-esteem by doing things by themselves because they recognize that they don’t need help. (Yes, the “I do it” phase can be frustrating, but it is necessary!)
This can start with things like letting them feed themselves. It could also mean letting them change their own clothes (as much as possible) and even letting them help in the kitchen.
2. Speak over them in a positve way.
Children are listening more than you might even know! If you speak to your child or about your child positively or negatively, this will impact their self-esteem. By saying things like, “You are such a hard worker” you can build up your child’s self-esteem.
On the contrary, negative words can have a poor effect on self-esteem. Once, I was talking to a parent as we were watching their child play nicely with other kids. Then, the mom said rather loudly, “He is such a naughty boy!” and instantly, this kid knocked over a big toy. He heard his mother talking that way, so he internalized it, and started acting naughty, even though he wasn’t before.
This interaction broke my heart and served as a reminder that our words matter!
3. Set clear expectations.
When you create an environment where your children know what is expected of them, they have a better chance of being successful. If they know the rules, they can choose to follow them and get positive feedback (or at least a lack of negative feedback).
When children have boundaries and clear expectations they can learn new things, grow, and be safe. All of these things can contribute to higher self-worth.
On the other hand, if rules are unclear or constantly changing, kids might get reprimanded more. They also might get hurt or feel less safe. By setting clear, age-appropriate guidelines, you help your children feel more successful.
4. Spend time with them.
Spending time with your children helps them to know they are of value. Children desperately want attention, affection, and approval, and this all starts with time spent with them. Try to set aside time on a regular basis where your child gets your undivided focus. This time together (as long as it’s mostly positive) can greatly impact a child’s self-esteem from a young age.
Some children are naturally very social and have plenty of opportunities to socialize. But even the most social creatures (as two year olds especially!) need the extra guidance. Feel free to overtly coach your kids in how to interact with peers. This is especially important in helping kids navigate difficult exchanges that may include an argument (probably over a toy).
Help your child know how to talk with their peers when things get hard. Teach them the words they can use when they want a toy someone else has, or when someone wants what they have. (We usually use words like, “Can I have a turn when you’re done?” or “When I’m finished with the toy you can have a turn.”) If this is hard, I even set a little timer to help them know it’s time to share the toy. Giving them this structure will them be more successful in friendships, which greatly contributes to self-esteem.
6. Enlist them as helpers.
I love giving my little ones responsibilities around the house. I try to keep them age-appropriate, but also something that is actually helpful. (Although, it will likely take time to get them proficient at the task.) Feeling like they are contributing can really make them feel good about themselves!
I let my little one help unload the dishwasher, push buttons on the washing machine, pick up her toys, and throw things in the trash. And no kidding, my little one is just delighted to help! If you start them early, contributing to household tasks will be normal and will help increase their self-worth.
7. Praise effort, not results.
In general, I think it’s SO IMPORTANT to give your child positive praise. They drink it up from an early age. They love knowing that their parents are proud of them. And if you praise specific behaviors (“I love how you are sharing with your friend”) then they are more likely to do it again and again. They want the positive feedback and attention from you.
The one downfall to praise can be if you praise only the outcome. If you only focus on the outcome of their effort, they will think your approval and affection are because of how well they performed. Thus, if they lose a game or don’t get an A in class, then they will think it will automatically be disappointing to you. However, they might have had their best game and still lost, or math might be a hard subject and getting a C is a huge accomplishment for them. That’s why it is important to praise their effort rather than the outcome.
You want to encourage good character, not just “winning”. So make sure you tell your child that you like how hard they tried, or how they did not give up, or how they helped out someone else.
8. Model positive ways to deal with difficult situations.
Part of self-esteem is built around how you react when things don’t go well. If your child has a huge meltdown every time they can’t do something (can’t get up the jungle gym, can’t tie their shoes, can’t put the puzzle together) then it is going to be hard on their self-esteem. One of the best ways to help them in this area is to model how you deal with difficult tasks.
You can do this as you work through real frustrations in everyday life or with the task they are currently working on. When I’m mindful enough to realize I’m getting too frustrated with my toddler as she screams about wanting her food now, I narrate my own thoughts. I say something like, “I’m feeling frustrated that you are whining as I’m getting dinner ready. I’m trying to go as fast as I can so you can have food soon. I’m going to take a few deep breaths to help me calm down.”
When I’m not being this idyllic version of myself, I’m yelling. Ugh! I wish that weren’t true, but it is. Patience is a thing that I think all parents are working through (and if you are one of those super calm parents all the time, I do not understand you, but I respect you!)
Anyway, if you can model how you work through a problem in a positive way, you can help your child do that the next time they come up against something hard. I also try to coach my little one through problem-solving by showing her how to try a new way to fix it. I want to teach her how to be a problem solver.
9. Teach them how to ask for help.
Sometimes your child has done their absolute best to work through a hard task, and it’s still not working. That’s when they should ask for help. Let them know it’s okay to ask for help. And if they need, teach them the specific words to use when asking for help. (If they are having a hard time communicating, that can be a source of frustration in itself. Check out my article here for my favorite tips and tricks for communication.)
When your child does ask for help, assess the situation and decide if you can coach them into fixing the problem on their own. Sometimes with just a little help, they can do it alone, and then you can praise them for how hard they worked to do it on their own. Other times though, there will definitely be things you need to do for them (like if they are stuck somewhere or have their finger pinched).
When they ask for help, praise them for that, too. Tell them you are glad they asked you for help since they were having a hard time. Feeling successful, even if you need some help contributes to positive self-esteem.
10. Help your child stay active.
There is a growing body of research that suggests helping your child stay active can benefit your child’s self-esteem. It’s well known that being active is good for one’s physical health, but more and more research suggests it’s good for mental health too. The study called “Exercise to Improve Self-Esteem in Children and Young People” is a review of many small studies that conclude there are some positive, short-term effects of physical exercise on self-esteem.
I don’t know about you, but that makes so much sense to me! Whenever I get a workout in, I feel so great about it! And if I know I’m physically fit because of a pattern of exercise, I feel super positive about myself.
As you’ve read through this article, I hope it has resonated with you. Self-esteem is such an important part of each of us, and as caregivers, we have incredible power to shape our children. There are several things you can do to increase self-esteem, and I hope you will take the time to do them. I know that even just writing this article has made me think about how my self-esteem has been shaped, and how my actions are shaping my children.
Drop a comment below about something that impacted your self-esteem as a child, or which of the strategies is your favorite.
And here is one more good resource that has some quick insights on self-esteem in children.
Ekeland, E., Heian, F., Hagen, K.B., Abbott, J. and Nordheim, L. (2005), Exercise to Improve Self-Esteem in Children and Young People. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 1: 1-52. https://doi.org/10.4073/csr.2005.4
Nguyen DT, Wright EP, Dedding C, Pham TT and Bunders J (2019) Low Self-Esteem and Its Association With Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation in Vietnamese Secondary School Students: A Cross-Sectional Study. Front. Psychiatry 10:698. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00698