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How to Build Self Esteem in Children

7 Steps for Instilling Good Self Esteem in Kids

by Jenn Berman M.F.T., Psy.D.
Book Cover Image. Title: The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids, Author: by Jenn Berman, Jenn Berman, Donna Corwin

The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kidsby Jenn BermanJenn BermanDonna Corwin

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Raising kids today in a world where people become famous, not for accomplishing something meaningful, but instead for sex tapes, six pack abs, round butts, or for being on a reality show can make it challenging to raise kids who have a strong sense of self and who create enough meaning in their lives to develop a sense of worth. Kids with good self esteem have:
  • Confidence in their ability to cope with challenges
  • A belief in their own ability to be successful and happy
  • A feelings of being worthy, deserving and entitled to assert their needs and desires
  • A sense of mastery
  • A sense of self which leads to an understanding of what is important to him or herself
  • The ability to pick people who support and encourage them
  • The ability to recover from failure
  • An understanding of both their strengths and weaknesses
The self esteem movement has been very misunderstood in this country. Misguided parents have been led to believe that telling their children they are "special," saying things like "good job," giving all kids participation medals and trophies will make children feel good about themselves. But in truth those things create entitlement, the need for constant praise and an inability to cope with life's challenges. So how do you raise a child who actually has good self esteem? Start with these tips.

1. Keep in mind you are your child's first mirror. Parents are the psychological mirrors which children use to define themselves; to figure out who they are and how they fit into their world. This is because an infant is born without a sense of self and parents help create his first images of who he is and what his value is in the world. As children get older and their world becomes bigger, they discover more mirrors, such as friends, relatives, teachers, child care workers. However, for better or for worse, it is the parents who create the foundation for a child's sense of self through all of their experiences, especially words and actions. Pediatrician and author Dr. William Sears said it best when he wrote, "What children believe about themselves is at the heart of what they become."

2. Really listen to your child. Most parents find it very easy to tell their children what they want but have a much more difficult time listening to what their kids want and need. To truly hear your child is to understand not only what she is saying but also what the underlying message is and to understand her needs. For example, every night after dinner, two-and-a-half-year-old Justin started telling his parents that he was "Baby John," the name of his two-month-old cousin. Instead of just telling him, "No, you're not. You're Justin and you are a big boy," his parents listened, asked questions, and played along. By allowing him to express his need to be "little" and regress, they realized that Justin was in need of more comfort. Show your child she is worthy of your attention by turning off the computer, putting down the cell phone, turning off the television, and listening.

3. Respect all your child's feelings. Honor your child's feelings. Whether it is an infant expressing herself by kicking her legs during a diaper change to let you know that she does not want to be changed, a toddler throwing a toy that has frustrated her, or a five-year-old telling you she hates her baby sister, your job as a parent is to hear the feelings your child is expressing and reflect back what you understand. For example, you might make the following statements: "I see you really don't want to have your diaper changed right now," "It looks like that toy really frustrated you," or "It's hard sharing Mommy and Daddy, isn't it?" Too many parents opt for "Cut it out!" "Don't throw your toys," and "You don't really hate her," which completely miss the point and make children feel they can't share their feelings with their parents. Many parents worry that acknowledging their child's negative feelings will only make them worse when, in fact, the opposite is true. Giving a child room to experience her negative feelings often makes those feeling go away.

4. Help your child feel connected. Children who feel connected with their family members, friends and community feel good and, as a result, they do well. They are far more motivated to learn, cooperate, and be loving when they feel connected, cared about, and valued. Some parents mistakenly believe that screaming at, humiliating, hurting, or ordering around their kids will make them behave better. In fact, these tactics create a backlash. Sometimes it comes right away and sometimes it takes a few years, but, in my clinical experience, I've found that it will always haunt you: even if your child obediently follows your instructions when you use one of these harsh methods, be aware that her resentment toward you is building and her perception of you as a safe person has been seriously compromised.

5. Recognize the power of your words. Parents must be careful with their words. Labels, in particular, can be damaging, disrespectful, or dismissive (e.g., "Joey's always grouchy in the morning," "Oh, that Olivia! She is a devil child!"). Judgments about a child's character often become self-fulfilling. Children, assuming that adults know more than they do, trust our assessments more than their own: a child who is labeled "shy" may eventually come to believe that she is shy. Labels also overlook a child's strengths. For example, a "shy" child can be very observant, watching people and situations before deciding how and when to act. This child really gets to know people before warming up to them and can develop some valuable attributes from this trait.

6. Teach Your Child To Fail. Children with high self esteem can see their weaknesses and view them as opportunities for growth. If you can tolerate your child's mistakes, you give them the opportunity to learn from them. Children who don't learn to lose, don't learn to win. But more importantly they get their competitive passions quashed. Competition is the opportunity for a child to take risks, rise to a challenge, learn about himself, and perform. It is an opportunity for growth.

7. Teach your child to help others starting at a young age. Making a difference in the world and helping others are the best inoculations against poor self esteem for children. Having a sense of purpose, knowing that you can influence others and give back, creates a sense of self efficacy that leads to great self esteem. Performing meaningful activities decreases boredom, isolation, self-centeredness as well as materialism.  
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Meet Our Expert
Jenn Berman M.F.T., Psy.D.
Marriage, Family and Child Therapist
Dr. Jenn Berman is a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best selling books SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Year, The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy Confident Kids, and the children's book Rockin' Babies. Her award winning "Dr. Jenn" parenting column is printed in Los Angeles Family Magazine and five other magazines and has been running since 2002. Dr. Jenn is also on the Board of Advisors for Parents Magazine.

Dr. Jenn has appeared as a psychological expert on hundreds of television shows including The Oprah Winfrey Show and is a regular on The Today Show, The Early Show, and CNN. She hosts a live daily call-in advice show called "The Love and Sex Show with Dr. Jenn" on Sirius/XM's Cosmo Radio 5-8 pm PST.

In addition, Dr. Jenn has an eco-friendly clothing line for adults and children called Retail Therapy . All the tees have positive "feel good" messages and are made of organic and recycled materials. Dr. Jenn lives in Los Angeles with her husband and twin daughters. For more information on go to or follow her on Twitter at and
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Book Cover Image. Title: SuperBaby:  12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years, Author: by Jenn Berman, Jenn Berman

SuperBabyby Jenn BermanJenn Berman

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