Self-Esteem in Children: Where It Comes From, How to Build It
Self-esteem. It’s gotten a bad rep in recent years, as science has systematically debunked the claims made during the West’s 1990s obsession. But it still feels like a not-small part of the puzzle a raising a healthy, happy child into adulthood, with good reason: While self-esteem doesn’t cause success (plenty of criminals have a high opinion of themselves), it is influential in physical, mental and relationship health over the course of a life time.
But when and how to build self-esteem? Most parents associate the preteen and teen years as the ages they need to be concerned about self-esteem in children, but research shows the foundation for it is laid much earlier.
How self-esteem develops in children
Self-esteem develops from a mix of genetic and environmental factors. To a certain extent, everyone is born either more or less disposed to seeing themselves as a person of worth. In 2011, scientists identified the gene associated with feelings of self-esteem, optimism, and control over one’s life. Subtle variations on OXTR, the oxytocin receptor gene, predicted less of these feelings as well as higher feelings of depression.
Interestingly, oxytocin is the hormone responsible for, among many other things, bonding between babies and parents, a possible factor that led the research team to conclude not that self-esteem was predetermined, but that experiences in early life can affect that gene’s expression.
“Some people think genes are destiny, that if you have a specific gene, then you will have a particular outcome. That is definitely not the case,” the study’s senior author, psychologist Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, University of California-Los Angeles, said at the time. “This gene is one factor that influences psychological resources and depression, but there is plenty of room for environmental factors as well. A supportive childhood, good relationships, friends and even other genes also play a role in the development of psychological resources, and these factors also play a very substantial role in whether people become depressed.”
More recently, scientists nailed down what part of childhood was essential to the development of healthy self-esteem in children: before age five.
In 2016, researchers with the University of Washington adapted the Implicit Association Test, a tool that social scientists use to measure hidden bias in adults, for use with preschoolers. Preschoolers may have difficulty verbalizing complicated thoughts even to themselves, but they are very good at identifying ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ So, the team gave them two sets of flags – one that represented them, and one that represented ‘not-them’; they could use one flag per word in a series that included positive and negative adjectives like fun, nice, mean and yucky.
Overwhelmingly, the children associated themselves with positive words, but 10% did not. The authors explained their conclusion in an article for The Conversation:
“Young kids care a lot about others ‘like me,’ and this may even start in infancy. We also know from other research that infants and toddlers can judge the extent to which others are like them along several dimensions.
This lays the foundation for developing social relationships and a sense of belonging. These feelings, combined with warm and consistent care, help children develop feelings of attachment to their parents, which may further pave the way for the development of positive self-esteem. We found the first five years to be critical in laying the foundation for this social-emotional development.”
How parents can build self-esteem in children
So, self-esteem in kids is genetic – and it’s mutable; some kids may just need a little more help than others to achieve a steady sense of self-worth.
But how hard should parents work at building self-esteem in children? The line between enough and too much praise and encouragement is not easily sensed – and could very easily lead to the kind of entitled child nearly all parents dread. In fact, some research has tracked a rise in narcissism among the very Western youths who were raised during the height of the self-esteem movement.
But that’s correlation, not causation, argues Eddie Brummelman, PhD, in an article for Scientific American last year.
“Narcissism is cultivated by parental overvaluation: parents seeing their child as unique and extraordinary individual. […] Overvaluing parents have been found to overestimate, over-claim, and over-praise their child’s qualities. Overvaluing parents think their child is smarter than he or she actually is. They claim their child has knowledge of a wide variety of topics, even topics that cannot possibly be known by the child. And they lavish their child with praise, even when the child doesn’t perform well. Over time, these practices can teach children to see themselves as unique and extraordinary individuals.
Self-esteem, on the other hand, is cultivated by parental warmth: parents expressing fondness and affection for their child. This isn’t anything like overvaluing children. Warm parents share joy with their child, show interest in the child’s activities, and make the child feel loved and valued. Over time, these practices can teach children to see themselves as worthy individuals—not as any better or worse than other individuals.”
It may be true that building healthy self-esteem in kids boils down to loving them unconditionally and making sure they know it, but that doesn’t explain or help all of the doting parents whose children still struggle with poor self-image, self-confidence and general feelings of low worth. Love gets expressed, interpreted and interrupted in vastly different, inexplicable ways; clearly what parents put out there doesn’t always get taken in, in the way they intended.
But there are some steps parents can take to help funnel that feeling of being loved into healthier self-esteem, writes Jamie M. Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute and the director of the Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service, for PBS.
Parents are children’s first role models, and kids pick up on the smallest things from a very early age. If you’re saying things like “Oh, I could never do that,” or “I look terrible in this outfit,” in your child’s hearing often, don’t be surprised when they start copying that attitude toward themselves.
Praise them – but not for everything.
Don’t praise indiscriminately for things kids aren’t, actually, good at. As Brummelman noted, this can lead to the feeling of arrogance and entitlement parents fear. Instead, be specific about what you’re praising, and encourage success achieved through effort and hard work. If you’re not in the habit of praising your kids openly, let them ‘overhear’ you praising them to someone else. And avoid calling kids out on what they’re not good at — they already know. (Learn more about praising kids in a healthy way.)
Be okay with failure.
Failure is an important experience through which kids learn resilience, the ability to keep moving forward after a setback. Letting kids take risks, praising them when they pay off and supporting them when they don’t will go a long way to building self-esteem in children. (Read more about the importance of failure and resilience.) Conversely, helping kids identify what they’re good at and helping them pursue that further helps them build confidence in their ability.
Encourage critical thinking.
Messages that can hurt self-esteem come from everywhere – friends, acquaintances, media, etc – and they only grow louder as children grow older. Help kids think critically about the messages they’re receiving – are they exaggerations? Impossible standards? Or valid criticism that can help them improve?