Creating REAL self-esteem (and resilience) in children

A sense of self-worth, self-respect and pride is immensely important for all of us. Finding a way to instil a healthy level of self-esteem in a child can be a daunting task, especially when going too far may also seem perilous. It pays to go about things the right way.

“Self-esteem comes from having a sense of belonging, believing that we are capable, and knowing our contributions are valued and worthwhile”, according to California family therapist Jane Nelson, co-author of the Positive Discipline series.

How we feel about ourselves can vary from day to day, and from experience to experience. Hence, having a good sense of self-esteem may vary over time. So, in addition to having a good sense of self-worth, developing resilience is also incredibly important. A child needs to learn how to bounce back in difficult times and be able to handle life’s many challenges.

Here are some ways to help build and develop self-esteem in a child.

Love unconditionally

A child needs to know that they are loved no matter how they perform or who they are. Unconditional love means that even if they are having difficulties in an area or are somehow different from others they are still loved. It’s essential though to differentiate behaviour from the individual. A child must learn that although they themselves are loved, their behaviour, at times, may not be.

Encourage healthy risk-taking

Healthy risk-taking can involve very small activities, such as tasting different types of food, making a new friend or trying a new sport or activity. Encourage a sense of adventure and risk-taking so that the child gains opportunities for success. Without trying new things, there is stagnation and no progress.

To encourage healthy risk-taking, avoid stepping in and doing the work for the child. Let her figure out a puzzle unassisted; allow her to balance on stepping stones in a play park, or encourage her to ask a shopkeeper for assistance without taking over and finishing her sentence.

Allow things to go wrong

Following on from the previous step, it is a good idea to occasionally allow things to go belly-up, as long as there is no obvious harm. If a cup of water gets knocked off the edge of the table, let it happen. This raises the opportunity to discuss what precautions can be taken next time so this won’t happen again. A child needs to realise that the world won’t collapse if mistakes are made.

Accentuate the positive

We all love to know that we can achieve – and that we’re good at things. A sense of accomplishment can greatly help self-esteem, so when a child completes something or does well, let others know. “Jack helped me dry all the dishes today” or, “Sarah rode her tricycle all the way home from the park” are statements that make the child feel special and accomplished.


Show a child that you acknowledge and understand her by listening. A child wants to know that her thoughts and feelings are being acknowledged, that they matter. Look at the child when she is talking to you and listen to what she is saying. Follow this up by verbally acknowledging what she has said.

Draw the line

Allowing a child to do whatever he pleases will not make him feel safe. Provide the child with limits and establish rules and boundaries. Even if the child is initially uncomfortable, he will still feel secure knowing that rules are giving him order and providing safety in his world.

Keep it real: don’t over-praise

Above all, don’t fall into the trap of constant praise. “You’re the best”, “you’re perfect” and “you’re better than the others” are all well intended, but they don’t help.

If the child thinks they are already perfect, the bar is lowered. Why try to improve when you’re already the best? Secondly, words like ‘best’ and ‘perfect’ imply that this is the only standard that matters, which may make a child feel that unless they meet these standards, nothing else will do.

Build child self esteem - Sage Institute of Child CareFinally, children aren’t stupid. False praise becomes transparent. If “Doting Daddy” tells his son he is a brilliant basketballer when the child clearly can’t even catch a ball, what’s he ever to believe? Similarly, if a child is brought up to believe that they are the most beautiful, the most talented and the most brilliant, yet fail to get their dream job, win the Mobel Peace Prize or become a famous actor, the consequences could be devastating. Keeping it real will benefit you and your child in the quest for self-esteem and a sense of self-worth in the long run.

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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