Developing Self-Esteem in Children

The Importance of Self-Esteem

A child’s self-concept is formed in response to how they perceive themselves, experiences, abilities, and the future. Self-concept is a child’s overall understanding of who they are. Self-esteem is the result of self-assessments the child makes about their self-concept and is described as a “feeling of self-appreciation.” When a child’s self-appraisal is excessively negative, the consequence is low self-esteem. A positive self-esteem is critical to a child’s social and emotional development and may serve as a protective factor by promoting healthy coping strategies.

Between the ages 6-12, children grow in self-awareness and empathy. This is a critical developmental time for children as it sets the foundation for how they view themselves, others, and their environment. They form a fundamental mental image of themselves through interaction with others. Self-esteem is developed through realistic perceptions of the environment that the child internalizes. It is dependent on the child’s ability to generate realistic, positive feelings and thoughts about their environment and experiences.

How Does Low Self-esteem Develop in Children?

As children interact with their parents, teachers, and peers, they engage in self-appraisal and evaluation. Disproportionate negative thinking and self-evaluation (“I’m worthless” or “I’m not good enough”) often results in low self-esteem. To cope with negative feelings, children adopt dysfunctional conditional assumptions or rules. These rules are usually unrealistic, unreasonable, and rigid. Although they may appear to protect the child’s self-esteem, in reality, they perpetuate and maintain negative beliefs and low self-esteem.

A natural consequence of these assumptions is that the child’s behavior is inhibited which leaves minimal opportunity for the negative beliefs to be challenged, discredited, and modified. For example, a child who has adopted the rule, “I must never ask for help, because if I do, people will make fun of me,” will not ask for help because they fear others will make fun of them. Since they are not asking for help, the unrealistic rule remains uncontested and continues to contribute to the child’s negative self-image. On the other hand, if the same child requested help, they may have a positive experience and recognize that people will not laugh at them. Thus, the assumption that people would make fun of them is challenged and invalidated.

The Covid-19 Pandemic and Children’s Self-Esteem

Perceptions about situations influence emotional and behavioral reactions. Thus, negative self-esteem is formed, in part, by unrealistic ways of thinking. Additionally, a child’s perceptions about their abilities can be distorted, contributing to distress and the development of inaccurate assumptions. These assumptions form the foundation for responding to the world and continue into adulthood, contributing to psychological difficulties such as depression or anxiety.

Physical and social distancing protocols due to the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in reduced interaction between children and teachers, extended family members, and peers. However, there is increased interaction with parents due to greater time spent at home. This suggests parents have a heightened opportunity to provide meaningful feedback to their child to guide the growth of self-esteem. This feedback is critical to a child’s emotional development. Additionally, children who were already experiencing psychological problems at the time of the pandemic, may encounter symptom exacerbation due to less socialization, increased levels of family stress, and ineffective coping skills.

How Parents Can Children Develop Self-Esteem

Parents can help their child identify, accurately evaluate, and correct thoughts so they are more accurately resemble reality. Realistic thoughts reduce distress and promotes a healthy self-concept. The way the child thinks about a situation influences the child’s feelings and behavior. Thus, it is not an event itself that creates distress, rather it is the meaning the child attaches to the event that influences how they feel and act. Overall, it is important to keep in mind that a child’s judgement about their abilities is linked to their self esteem which influences their self-concept.

To be internalized and adopted by the child, thoughts and beliefs need to be realistic. This underscores the importance for the parental feedback to be genuine and believable instead of unrealistically positive. Parental acceptance and nurturance play a critical role in the development of positive self-concept. However, excessively telling a child they are “awesome” or “amazing” does not help develop positive self-esteem. Attempts to strengthen self-esteem by external praise or persuasion is not a reliable approach to developing a positive self-concept. Rather, realistic, caring, and empathetic feedback is important . Providing children with guidance and tools for realistic assessment of situations will set the foundation for developing a healthy self-concept.

Helping Children Develop Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is linked to skills in the following domains. Additionally, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be helpful in addressing low self-esteem. 

Behavior- Parent/child interactions offer an opportunity to model prosocial behaviors. Open, honest communication while setting and reinforcing boundaries is critical. It is also important for the parent and the child to have a shared understanding of rules and consequence for certain behaviors.

Emotional Understanding and Coping skills- Communicating about difficult situations promotes greater understanding of feelings. The insight gained from parental feedback, followed by an age appropriate reaction strengthens coping skill and guides the process of developing a positive self-concept.

Social skills- Rewarding interactions with parents, siblings, teachers, and peers are critical to a healthy self-concept. Social interactions help children develop strong problem solving abilities, negotiation and communication skills, and enhance anger management skills.

Thoughts- Realistic, balanced thoughts are important to a healthy self-concept. Critical self-evaluations reinforce negative core beliefs and assumptions that are formed during childhood. Parents can play a role in helping their child identify and reframe negative thoughts with the goal of replacing them with more realistic ways of thinking.


Dr. Sarah Mahnaz Vanlandingham is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who specializes in individual, group, and family psychological therapy and assessment services for children, adolescents, and adults.