Weighless Magazine November 2011, contributions by Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist and Director of PsychMatters Family Centre

In a world where materialism is rife, it is easy to become distracted by our eagerness to satisfy our children’s physical wants and neglect their emotional needs. Taking care to build your child’s self-esteem is just one of those things that often falls by the way side. It is not tangible, but it affects how your child behaves and feels. You can’t see it, but it is there when your child looks in the mirror every morning. So what is self-esteem, how is it related to body image and how can you boost your child’s self-esteem? By Samantha Watt

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem should not be confused with arrogance, pride or self-importance. It is not bragging about who you are or what you have done. It is not about thinking you are perfect – because no one is. According to Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist and Director of PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, No table of figures entries found.is the collection of beliefs or feelings that we have about ourselves or our ‘self-perceptions.’ It is the value we place on ourselves and the feeling we have about all the things we see ourselves to be.”

Why is it important for your child to have a healthy self-esteem?

Self-esteem can not be compared to a material possession. It is not the latest X-Box that your child would love to have, but doesn’t need. “It is your child’s armour against the challenges of the world” says Joanna. “Children who are confident have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile more readily and enjoy life. For children who have low self-esteem, any kind of challenge can become sources of major anxiety and frustration and find it very difficult to cope and adapt.”

What is body-image and how does it relate to self-esteem?

Our children are bombarded by unrealistic images portrayed in the media on a daily basis. They see it on the television, in magazines and even on the cover of CD labels. In fact, physical appearance is becoming more and more important as various forms of gate-keepers are held in higher esteem. According to Joanna, “body-image is closely associated with self-esteem, based on perceptions and beliefs formed through environmental exchange. Body-image and being body-conscious becomes heightened just before puberty, which is a normal part of development. It is reflective of the messages your child receives from the outside world about their outer appearance, which they then internalise. This is also a time when wanting to fit in with their peer group is paramount, and comparing self to others becomes the norm.” However, despite the positive feedback received, a child may hold on to a single perceived negative remark which in turn may shape their reality or perception of themselves. In cases like this, Joanna suggests that professional intervention is required. She adds, “studies show that some children require 12 positive comments or affirmations to counteract every one negative comment received.”

How do you know if your child has a positive or negative self-esteem?

From being bullied at school, a drop in academic performance, being uncomfortable with weight and no friends to negative reinforcements from parents, yelling and abuse – all of these influence how your child feels about themselves. But what are the tell-tale signs that you child has a self-esteem problem?

According to Joanna, a child who has low self-esteem will:

  • not want to try new things;
  • frequently speaks negatively about his/herself, saying such things as, “I’m stupid,” “I’ll never learn how to do this,” or “nobody cares about me anyway;”
  • exhibits a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for somebody else to take over;
  • has a tendency to be overly-critical of and easily disappointed in themselves or others;
  • be predominantly pessimistic.

A child who has a positive self-esteem will:

  • be comfortable in social settings and enjoy group activities as well as independent pursuits;
  • be able to work towards finding solutions in challenging situations;
  • voice discontentment without belittling him/herself or others. For example, rather than saying, “I’m an idiot,” a child with healthy self-esteem says, “I don’t understand this.”
  • knows his/her strengths and weaknesses, and accept them;
  • be predominantly positive.

How can you, as the parent, build your child’s self-esteem?

Joanna provides a few tips to help you build your child’s self-esteem:

  • Watch what you say: Children are very sensitive to parents’ words. Remember to praise your child not only for a job well done, but also for effort. But be truthful. Reward effort and completion instead of outcome.


  • Be a positive role-model: If you are excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your own abilities, body and limitations, your child may eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your child will have a great role-model.


  • Identify and redirect your child’s inaccurate beliefs: It’s important for parents to identify kids’ irrational beliefs about themselves.. Helping your child set more accurate standards that are realistic will help him/her have a healthier body-image and self-esteem.


  • Be spontaneous and affectionate with your child: Your love will go a long way to boost your child’s self-esteem. Give your child tons of hugs. Leave a note in his/her lunch box that reads, “I think you’re terrific!” don’t wait to give affection when your child has behaved the way you would like as this gives the message that your child is only loved when he/she is good.


  • Give positive, accurate feedback: Acknowledge your child’s feelings and reward the right choices). This will encourage him/her to make the most effective choice again.

Positive Affirmations

Things not to say to your child Things you should say to your child
“Next time work harder and make it.” “Well, you didn’t make the team, but I’m really proud of the effort you put into it.”
“How many times must I tell you, you don’t listen!” “I believe in you, I know you can.”
“Let me do this for you.” “Try even if you are not sure.”
“No, don’t be angry/mad/sad, you have so much to be thankful for.” “You can be so proud of yourself.”
“Why don’t you do what your brother does, he is so well-behaved.” “I really like what you did/what you said/how you behaved.”
“You are so clumsy/stupid/fat.” (avoid ‘you are’ statements) “I love you, just because.”
“You are not trying hard enough.” “You are beautiful and we appreciate you.”

Every parent wants their child to develop and grow to their full potential and by actively participating in their emotional well-being you can contribute to that. “A deep loving connection with a significant parental figure is the foundation and building block in developing a child’s healthy esteem of themselves. As a parent, you have the greatest influence in shaping your children’s sense of self-worth; you are their first and most important teacher,” concludes Joanna.


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