All children – and adults – are conscious of and sensitive to the opinions of others. But children with low self-esteem are extremely dependent on external approval. They may develop performance-based self-esteem, which means they must constantly be successful and gain recognition.
People with poor self-esteem can easily interpret completely neutral information as criticism. When the child gets older, they may find it hard to set boundaries, say no and put forward their own opinion. As an adult, they may become excessively self-absorbed or live with the fear that everyone else will discover how “bad” they are.
Low self-esteem should not be confused with shyness.
Most people want their children to have good self-esteem – it makes it easier to handle life's various setbacks. A child with good self-esteem will grow into a person who isn't broken up by the occasional failure, or by external criticism.
How's your own self-esteem?
Many parents look at themselves with new eyes when they have children. We know kids tend to do what we adults do, not what we tell them to do. You may want your child to be less vulnerable than you yourself are, and for their self-esteem to be sturdier and independent from performance.
Many adults could also do with working on changing their behaviour, such as being far too self-critical in certain situations – if they say something wrong, don't succeed in being popular or perform slightly below expectations.
Advice for parents
Psychologists and psychotherapists believe that children who feel loved, seen and accepted have a good chance of developing good self-esteem. Obviously, personality, circumstances and friends also play a role.
Here's some advice for everyday use:
• When your child does something wrong, criticise the behaviour, not the child. Choose your words: “Don't do that!” rather than “Don't be stupid!” Or even better, if it works in context, “Do this instead...”
• When your child is little, each new skill can result in applause. Have reasonable expectations of what your child should achieve even when they're a little older. If things don't go so well, don't make a big thing of it; show your child you love them just as they are.
• Be a good role model. When talking about yourself, be accepting and nice rather than bemoaning your inadequacy. Make it clear that you value yourself. Avoid negative self-talk about your appearance, your body or your achievements. This attitude also makes you feel good.
• Avoid being excessively critical of others' appearance or performance. If your child hears you saying bad things about people a lot, you are communicating that you still have to be wary of what other people think of you, which creates anxiety.
• Allow your child to be both angry and sad. If a child has a tantrum for no good reason, confirm that you see and understand that he or she is angry. It's fine to respect without understanding – which is not to say that you should accept that your child is fighting or breaking things. It's also important to set boundaries.
• Trust your feelings and those of your child. If your child is sad, showing that you are also sad isn't much help. Instead, ask if you can do anything to help. Because you always can – the most important thing is to listen, even if you can't do anything about the matter afterwards. Small children can also find it hard to explain why they are sad. If so, it may be enough just to sit on your knee for a while, with your full attention of support.
The difference between self-esteem and self-confidence
Self-esteem and self-confidence are not quite the same thing, although they are strongly influenced by each other.
• Self-esteem can be described as your basic attitude to yourself: how proud or satisfied the child is with him or herself as a person. Low self-esteem is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety later in life.
• Self-confidence is the child's trust in their own abilities: what he or she believes she can achieve. Children can have high self-confidence in one area and lower self-confidence in another area.
Some good books on children and self-esteem:
Petra Krantz Lindgren. Med känsla för barns självkänsla.
Jana Söderberg. Våga vara: visa barn vägen till bättre självkänsla.
Your child's self-esteem
Children who feel seen and accepted have a good chance of developing good self-esteem and becoming a confident person. But this isn't always enough. Here are a few specific tips on important day-to-day psychology.