Promoting Healthy Self-Esteem in Children: Helping Children Feel Capable and Confident

Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is as important as the judgment we pass on ourselves.”  — Dr. Nathaniel Branden

The Essential Ingredients of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a child’s composite inner picture of his or her own worth and value.  A child’s self-concept will powerfully impact their happiness, academic performance, relationships, creativity, healthy risk-taking, perseverance, resilience, and problem-solving. Healthy self-esteem includes the dual components of feeling both loveable and capable—being convinced of one’s intrinsic worth and value, as well as one’s ability to handle life’s challenges. 

Specific Strategies to Build Children’s Self-Confidence and Competence

Children need to feel responsible and capable, in addition to feeling loved. When a child is convinced that he is good at some things, he is more eager to try new experiences and to persevere in the face of difficulties. A “can do” attitude leads to joyful learning and prepares kids to take responsibility for their actions, pursue their goals, overcome obstacles, make good choices, handle frustration, and solve life’s problems. 

  • Foster self-approval by coupling praise with encouragement.   To acquire a sense of competence, children need both encouragement for their efforts and interests, as well as praise for their achievements. While everyone appreciates specific, genuine praise, excessive praise can make a child overly dependent on the approval of others. Praise (“Wow, you really colored inside the lines on this picture!” or “That’s so great! You scored the winning goal!”) focuses on an external evaluation by another and emphasizes outcome and results. In contrast, the encouragement on which children thrive fosters self-approval by focusing on effort and process (“Tell me about your picture; you’ve been working really hard on it!” or “You sure played your heart out today!”) 


  • Provide daily structure, routines, and limits.  Young children gain a sense of competence and confidence when daily activities occur with some measure of predictability and when the limits of acceptable behavior are clearly defined. Adhering to familiar daily routines – like saying grace before meals, having regular snacks and outdoor play, enjoying family time after dinner, or reading bedtime stories increase a child’s confidence by allowing him to predict what comes next. 


  • Acknowledge and respect a child’s likes, dislikes, favorite activities and interests (favorite color, stories, songs, toys, clothing, foods).   All children need adult cheering squads and encouragement for their interests and endeavors. Show your children that you honor their individuality and take pride in their achievements by offering acceptable choices, listening attentively when they talk about their activities, attending their performances, and displaying their artistic creations.


  • Help children feel responsible and independent.   Support your child’s emerging independence by letting her do things for herself that she is capable of handling, like hanging her coat on a child-level peg or opening her own carton of yogurt. The goal of helping a child become capable and self-confident is more important than “getting the job done” or having it done “right.” Abiding by classroom rules or putting toys away at “clean up time” helps children fulfill adults’ expectations and feel successful.  


  • Encourage healthy risk-taking.   Children’s sense of competence is enhanced when their parents take the time to teach and celebrate new milestones. Encourage your child to try new experiences (i.e. tasting a new food); set and achieve realistic goals (i.e. saving for a special purchase), and acquire new skills (i.e. learning to swim or play an instrument). Help him handle the inevitable failures and temporary set-backs associated with healthy risk-taking.


  • Teach problem-solving skills.   Model for your children how to calmly face a problem, thoughtfully generate alternative solutions, anticipate the consequences of their choices, decide on the best course of action, and evaluate the outcome. Early problem-solving experience helps equip a child to find appropriate solutions to life’s challenges. 


  • Let children learn from their mistakes.   Teach children that their choices and actions have consequences. Show them how to take responsibility for their poor choices, make amends, and use their mistakes as major learning opportunities. The lessons learned from early mistakes, with small consequences, can teach children to effectively solve future, major problems by making better decisions. 


  • Provide volunteer opportunities.   Children have an innate desire to help others. Identifying ways they can contribute something and make a positive difference promotes a sense of competence and fosters empathy. Ideally, choose charitable efforts that involve a human connection with someone in need. 


Copyright ©  2011  Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS     May be duplicated if authorship is cited.