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Let’s start of by undertanding what self-esteem is – it’s the collection of beliefs and feelings that we have about ourselves which influences our motivations, attitudes, actions and affects how we adjust in the world.

Patterns of self-esteem start very early in life. When your toddler reaches a milestone, he experiences a sense of accomplishment that bolsters esteem. Mastering getting the spoon into his mouth every time he eats is an experience that teaches your child a “CAN DO” attitude. As your child tries, fails, tries again, fails again, and then finally succeeds, he is developing ideas about his own capabilities. At the same time, he is creating a self-concept based on interactions with other people. This is why parental involvement is key to helping a child form accurate, healthy self-perceptions. Self-esteem is also defined as the combination of feelings of capability with feelings of being loved. A child who is happy with an achievement but does not feel loved may eventually experience low self-esteem. Likewise, a child who feels loved but is hesitant about his own abilities can also end up with a low self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem results when the right balance is attained.

Those who feel good about themselves seem to have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile and enjoy life more. They are realistic, optimistic and face challenges easier. When challenges arise, they are able to work toward finding solutions. They know their own strengths and growth areas. In contrast, for those who have low self-esteem, challenges can become sources of major anxiety and frustration, they have a hard time finding solutions to problems, are plagued by self-critical thoughts, such as “I can’t do anything right,” and they may become withdrawn, or depressed. Faced with a new challenge, their immediate response is “I can’t.” It helps for parents to be aware of the signs of both healthy and unhealthy self-esteem. A child who has low self-esteem:

  • may not want to try new things
  • may frequently speak negatively about himself, like, “I’m stupid,” “I’ll never learn how to do this,”
  • may show a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for somebody else to take over
  • tends to be overly critical of and easily disappointed in himself
  • A sense of pessimism prevails.


  • 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. E.g., if your child doesn’t make the soccer team, avoid saying, “Well, next time you’ll work harder and make it.” Instead, say, “Well, you didn’t make the team, but I’m really proud of the effort you put in.”
  • Be a positive role model – If you are excessively harsh on yourself or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your child may mirror you.
  • Nurture your own self-esteem.
  • Identify and redirect your child’s inaccurate beliefs – Help your child set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating himself. E.g., a child who does very well in school but struggles with maths may say, “I can’t do maths. I’m a bad student.” Encourage your child to see the situation in its true light. A helpful response might be: “Maths is just a subject that you need to spend more time on. We’ll work on it together.”
  • Be spontaneous and affectionate with your child – Your love will go a long way to boost your child’s self-esteem. Give your child hugs. Leave a note that reads, “I think you’re terrific!”
  • Create a safe, nurturing environment – A child who is exposed to parents who fight and argue repeatedly may become depressed and withdrawn. Watch for signs of abuse, problems in school, trouble with peers, and other factors that may affect your child’s esteem. Deal with these issues sensitively but swiftly.
  • Help your child become involved in constructive experiences – Activities that encourage co-operation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem.

If you or your child is struggling with low self-esteem and it is impacting negatively on your and/or your child’s life, please contact PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre, Bedfordview, JHB on 011-4503576 to learn to be more empowered or enrol your child on the Confident Kidz 1-day Worskhop.

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