Promoting Healthy Self-Esteem in Children: Helping Children Feel Loved and Worthy

“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 his or her 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. 

 Children With Healthy Self-Esteem Do NOT…

  • have an over-inflated view of their own worth
  • have an over-developed sense of entitlement
  • satisfy their own needs and wants at the expense of others
  • ignore the evidence about their shortcomings
  •  Rather, healthy self-love and self-acceptance serve as the basis for continual self-improvement and are the foundation for all social responsibility and mutual regard for others.

    Specific Strategies to Help Children Feel Valued, Loved, and Worthy

     Unconditional love – with “no strings attached” – is the cornerstone of self worth. It is unmerited and unearned. Since unconditional love is based on no requirements, it is never subject to cancellation. Rather, it is love “come what may” – guaranteed and permanent.          

    Model self-respect and respect for others.   Adults who have a healthy self-image are best equipped to instill healthy self-esteem in the children within their sphere of influence. Examine your own model and consider obtaining professional help to strengthen your own self-concept, if necessary. Show mutual respect in all your interactions with others.  

    • Provide for children’s basic needs and physical safety.   A child who doesn’t trust that his essential needs will be met or who lives in fear of physical harm does not conclude that he is worthy. Meeting basic needs is a fundamental prerequisite to self-esteem.


    • Give children individual daily focused attention.   The most effective way to convey unconditional love and acceptance is by giving children liberal one-on-one focused attention.  Children are convinced that they are cherished and irreplaceable when adults give them the priceless daily gift of time and undivided attention. Focused attention is the best definition of “quality time.”  It tells a child, “You are more important to me than anything else right now.” 


    • Offer frequent verbal, physical, and written expressions of your affection.   Every child needs daily, repeated verbal and physical expressions of affection – loving affirmations and compliments, hugs and pats, and written notes. Think of these daily love messages as being biodegradable, and thus requiring constant replenishing. 


    • Assume the best in your child and focus on the positives.   Accepting your child the way she is right now leads to the desire to grow and improve. Make a mental list of her unique strengths and positive attributes. Let your child hear you speak positively about her.


    • Use communication techniques that convey respect.   Healthy communication helps children feel loved, respected, and emotionally safe.


    • Use body language that conveys your desire for intimate communication.   Stop what you are doing to give your child your undivided attention. Position yourself at your child’s eye level, lean forward, and maintain eye contact 
    • Ask open-ended questions that encourage dialogue.   Kids get bombarded daily with one-sided commands, orders, precautions, and reprimands. Encouraging a two-way dialogue enhances your child’s self-esteem and strengthens the adult-child bond. 
    • Listen with empathy, acknowledging and accepting feelings.   Listening attentively conveys understanding and acceptance. Paraphrase and validate your child’s feelings to help him recognize, express and cope with a range of emotions.  Developing emotional awareness enables a child to handle his own diverse feelings and to understand and empathize with the emotions of others. Empathy is a critical emotion underlying all acts of kindness. It is our societal buffer against cruelty.
    • Communicate with “I”-messages instead of “you”-messages.   “You”-messages (“Look what you’ve done!”) tend to judge, put down, lay blame, and lower self-esteem. “I”-messages (“I don’t like to tell you more than once because it drains my energy”) focus on the behavior – its impact on you and your reaction to it – rather than on the child. 


    • Use the connecting word “and” instead of “but.”   When the word but is used to connect two ideas, it tends to negate whatever precedes it. In contrast, the constructive word and serves to link two ideas of equal worth (“I know you said you picked up your toys, and I still see two trucks in the living room.”)
    • Apologize and ask forgiveness when appropriate.   An adult’s sincere apology conveys respect for the child and is a humbling gesture that reminds her “no one is perfect.” A genuine apology always is followed by a change in behavior. 


    • Recognize unique vulnerabilities in children.   Birth order, physical problems or illness, exceptional gifts, or a learning disability may affect a child’s self-esteem. Unique vulnerabilities can make it especially difficult to cultivate a child’s sense of worth and value.


    • Give children a sense of belonging.   Every child longs to feel accepted and a part of something greater than himself. When children are helped to take pride in their family, ancestry, ethnic heritage, faith tradition, community, school and classroom, they acquire a reassuring sense of identity and belonging that enhances their self-esteem. 


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